That summer I spent all my free time helping Justin get ready to leave the country and, without his knowledge, plotting how I could get him to take me and my kids along with him. He saw only how I was willing to repaint the living room and sort his LPs and 45s for sale to local collectors. I encouraged the kids to come along and help, hoping he’d see how well we all worked together. Hint, hint.
Faster than I wanted, but slower than he hoped, his house emptied of furniture, kitchenware, and clothing. And after a momentous estate sale weekend in early fall, the last of his Portland-based life was gone. Except me. We were still a couple and I held fast to a sliver of hope that he loved me just as much as I loved him.
“Do you think I could come visit you in Vietnam?” I asked him one afternoon on a break between coats of paint. “I’ve always wanted to travel, y’know?”
I didn’t know if he was aware of my desire to see the world, I didn’t even care, really. I just wanted him to turn and pull me toward him and say how he could never leave me. That he loved me enough to do whatever was necessary to be together. Instead he just smiled.
“I hope you do someday. I think you’d really love it.”
I leaned against the cool tile counter of his narrow kitchen, the walls still giving off that new Spring Dandelion paint smell, watching him rifle through the refrigerator for something more filling than ketchup or Dijon mustard.
How had I been so wrongabout him? I wondered. About Brian for that matter? I just wanted to be loved, that’s all. Was that so much to ask, really? I watched Justin while my stomach and heart switched places. I ached to have him hold me again, tell me he wanted me with him, yet I knew that I didn’t really know if he was The One. How could I after just six months of simultaneously dating and preparing to part?
It didn’t matter what was logical. I wanted to be with him. He didn’t know what he wanted, I reasoned. He seemed to like Stuart and Audrey well enough, and Audrey thought he was wonderful. I could show him it would work if he would just take us along with him.
“Who knows,” I cajoled. “Maybe the kids and I could come along with you. What an adventure, right?”
Justin groaned from behind the refrigerator door.
“What? Don’t you think my munchkins could handle it?”
He laughed, amused at my naïveté, and headed out the back door with a slice of cheese to finish painting window trim. I stayed—leaning against the refrigerator, hand on hip—wondering just what made the idea of my kids in Vietnam so ridiculous.
From the outside, I supposed, it did sound preposterous. It’s not as if the kids and I were seasoned travelers; the biggest adventure we’d had was a two-week vacation to California packed with visits to Six Flags, Disneyland, and our new favorite, Legoland. The farthest I’d ever traveled outside my own country was a two-day trip to Canada, which can’t even really count as international travel. Sure, this foreign-travel thing was new to us, but that didn’t mean it would be impossible.
I hadn’t honestly considered the realities of joining Justin on his trip, preferring instead to lament the facts that prevented me from traveling. I was still in university—finishing a long-postponed baccalaureate. I was feeding my kids with government assistance and paying rent with school loans. I wasn’t the kind of woman who traveled the globe; those were rich women, adventurous women. Until now, the boldest thing I’d ever done was give my telephone number to some guy at the Fez.
It bothered me, though, that he wouldn’t even consider our joining him, that he’d decided it was a ludicrous idea for the three of us to move to Vietnam. It was suddenly a challenge. So Justin thinks I couldn’t, wouldn’t take my kids abroad? That they aren’t capable of accepting the erratic schedule of travel or the limited access to modernity in a developing country, or perhaps it would be the distance from friends? Does he really think we’re stuck here in this working-class life? I’d grown up sheltered in a small town. I’d married young and played the obedient wife. I didn’t want that life for my children. And I was determined to prove him wrong.
I said goodbye to Justin in November, the afternoon before he’d drive his Rambler across the country to spend Thanksgiving with his parents in New England before flying first to Thailand, then on to Vietnam. We stood silently hugging in the room he was renting from a friend since his house had sold a month before.
There were no words that expressed the misery I felt. I still wanted him to love me back, to change his mind and stay. Or go with me in tow. Instead, we exchanged cards and our final kiss, a quick peck before my chest caved in and I struggled to breathe “Goodbye.”
The front door heaved against the shag carpet and I pushed the screen door just enough to pass by before the first sob escaped. I heard him call from behind me, “Thank you for everything, Teresa!” but couldn’t bear to turn back and wave. Instead, I poured my loss into the sleeve of my wool coat and walked the two miles home, gasping in the cool autumn air.
I buried myself in my university studies, taking four, five and six classes a term, desperate to be finished. Justin emailed every few weeks to tell me about his latest travels, then his first English classes in Hanoi. The more he told me, the more I wanted to go, but I knew that if I was going to get to Vietnam, if I was ever going to travel anywhere, it was going to be on my own. I would have to do it on my own. On our own–just me and the kids.
It was my 2005 New Year’s resolution to get us over there. I still had to finish the last three terms of my overdue bachelor’s degree, but between English literature and gender theory classes, I searched for a way to get us to Vietnam.
The big issue was, as it always has been, money. I couldn’t afford a two-week summer trip with the meager earnings from my work-study job. All the costs that Justin had incurred to get to Vietnam would be tripled for me. I had no house to sell. My collection of vintage sewing patterns wasn’t going to bring in the big bucks. My savings account had been closed years ago. The options, it seemed, were few until I stumbled onto the possibility of volunteering abroad.
While it sounded like a great opportunity for us–see the world and do some good–the volunteer organizations themselves weren’t so keen on taking the three of us. E-mails, phone calls, and more Web searching than I would care to admit elicited only “Sorry, we don’t accept children as volunteers” responses. Finally I found three organizations that would accept families. One was prohibitively expensive, more than a term’s tuition for each of us. Another didn’t even have a program in Vietnam and that was the only place I was willing to go. It left just one.
The online form consisted of mostly generic application questions: name, address, education, work experience. But they also wanted to know: What is your interest in the Vietnam program? I wasn’t sure whether they wanted to know why I chose Vietnam or why I wanted to volunteer, so I crafted my response to answer both.
I’ve wanted to see beyond the Pacific Northwest for as long as I’ve been considered an adult. I married a man who’d spent the previous decade traveling throughout America with his family, then settled into the Portland area, but we made it only as far as San Francisco in the entire decade we were together. Somehow we both let assumed family obligations keep us here instead of embarking on the adventures we both wanted but never realized together.
Fast-forward through divorce and a postponed college education and you get me: single with kids for nearly 7 years, two terms away from graduation, and an itch I can’t soothe. My ex- husband spends half his time abroad, traveling through Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as his tours of America. The man I fell in love with last year is spending this year traveling around SE Asia, most likely settling there for the near future.
I will admit it. I’m green with jealousy; these two fellows trotting around the globe at their whim and with no one to be responsible for but themselves. And here I am feeling tied down and using it as an excuse to do, still, what others expect me to do. Secretly, though, I’ve been stashing moxie away for a time when I might really need it. It seems that now is the time.
Why? you ask. For many reasons, though most revolve around my kids. I want them to see something besides typical American life. I want them to understand life outside the Eurocentric viewpoint, that the world is mostly brown-skinned and non-Christian, and that those people are not to be pitied, cursed or blamed for the world’s problems. I need my children to realize that they have been lucky to be born to a mother who loves them more than breathing and for family who would do whatever is necessary to have them happy and healthy, despite the fact that money doesn’t grow on any tree in our backyard. I want them to know that even as a young person, they can make a difference. They can sacrifice and give to others who have less, because there will always be those who are less privileged. I want them to see just a bit of history, to realize how big the world is and how important the past is to the future. I want them to spend enough time living in Vietnam to learn all of this. I want us to do something worthwhile.
Somehow, they saw beyond the lost-love reasoning and the melodramatic pleading and in early March I received an acceptance e-mail from Global Volunteer Network. We could volunteer with them in central Vietnam. Of course, it still came with a hefty price tag. I assumed that ten months would be enough to raise the $2,200 we had to pay to cover the cost of housing, food, and transportation. Then there were the ever-growing costs of plane tickets, visas, immunizations, and myriad unknown costs that would pop up.
In the ensuing months, my to-do list had seemed endless: Get notarized copies of the divorce decree. Take passport photos. Get fingerprinted. Apply for passports. Order visas from the Vietnamese Embassy. Earn passing grades in all three classes of my last term. Get Stuart and Audrey excused from school for at least six months. Sell, throw away, or pack everything we own. Break it to my parents that I am taking their grandchildren to a former enemy state.
“You’re going to Vietnam?” My mother was aghast. “Vietnam? But it’s so far away!” She looked as if she was going to slide into a full-on panic attack.
“Yeah. We’re staying with other orphanage volunteers, I think. Housing is provided.”
“Where? Are you gonna have to live at the orphanage?” Her voice characteristically rose in pitch as she grew more and more distraught.
Unfortunately, for her peace of mind, I didn’t even know what city we’d be in yet, let alone what the living arrangements would be.
“I’m not sure,” I told her. “They’ll let me know before we go.”
“But you’ll be alone. No family or anything.”
“I’ve got the kids,” I smiled. “Justin’s up in Hanoi. And besides, Mom, I’m a big girl now. I can see my fortieth birthday coming around the bend.” Even after all these years, she didn’t care for my sarcasm and the worry was etching furrows into her brow. “It’ll be okay, Mom.”
“You know they killed a lot of Americans there,” my dad interjected. He’d sat silently at the dining table for the entire conversation. “Don’t forget—they’re still the enemy.”
I couldn’t argue with him. In 1969 he’d been stationed with the Army in South Korea and had friends fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. All these years later, he had never gotten past the anger and frustrations that the war elicited in American soldiers.
I wasn’t sure if that anger remained on Vietnam’s side, too, but I’d heard the Vietnamese were kind, grateful, and not a grudge-holding kind of people. As with so many other things, I just had to hope that was true.
Month by month, tasks were crossed off my immense to-do list, but by mid-December I was days behind schedule with no room for error. I’d already screwed up my online anthropology class and managed to fail it. The only way to graduate now was to retake the course while we were abroad. Christmas gift shopping and crafting still hadn’t happened, and wasn’t likely to. The house still had way too much furniture in it. One way or another, though, we were flying out on the 26th, whether or not I was ready. Between classes and children, little was being packed and nothing was getting cleaned, so when my mom offered to take Stuart and Audrey for a few days before Christmas, I gratefully accepted. The kids got some extended time with my parents while I finished packing the house and delivering our belongings to miscellaneous relatives’ homes to be stored until our unknown return date.
Working late into the night and starting again early, I managed to get everything packed, delivered and cleaned, toiling right up through Christmas Eve. At 8 o’clock that night, I locked the front door one last time and tucked the key under the potted plant where our landlord had requested, climbed into the borrowed van stuffed with the last of our belongings, and drove an hour out of the city to my parents’ house. The unpacking would have to wait for the next day.
Christmas morning, normally filled with chaotic mirth, was shadowed by a melancholic excitement, emotions running the gamut for everyone. Only my sister’s three-day-old baby was immune to the fluctuations between eagerness and despondency. By the time we said goodbye to my parents, sisters, nieces, nephews, and grandparents at the airport hotel later that evening, there was little happiness left. We were leaving, possibly for a very long time. Tears replaced the few smiles we’d been able to muster earlier.
My dad admonished Audrey to “listen to your mother” and encouraged Stuart to “learn everything you can.” My mom hugged us each twice, then waved a teary farewell, sure that I’d completely lost my mind this time. Cousins cuddled and giggled. This was it: we were leaving with one-way tickets and virgin passports, bound for a Third World country. I couldn’t tell anyone just how scared I was.
We arrived at Portland International Airport long before the sun rose for our 6 a.m. flight, eager to be on our way at long last. Everything flowed smoothly until the Delta representative asked for our return tickets.
“I don’t have any,” I explained. “We’re not exactly sure when we’re coming back.” And, I neglected to tell her, I couldn’t afford round-trip tickets anyway. I was counting on one more financial aid check from college to get us home.
She looked at me, one eyebrow raised, seemingly as bewildered by this as my parents had been. “But you have to have tickets out. Vietnam won’t let you in without them.” She shrugged, “Communist country and all.”
The only choice was to get tickets out of Vietnam and into a country that didn’t require a visa, a rarity in Asia. Hong Kong was too expensive. Japan was too far. It would have to be Thailand. So there at the ticket counter, with Audrey nearly in tears thinking the trip would be canceled and Stuart helping me count and recount bills, I handed over all the garage sale, birthday, and Christmas cash we’d managed to gather over the past ten months to buy three tickets from Hanoi to Bangkok in mid-March. We boarded the plane an hour later with just $13 in my purse and an empty bank account.