“Why were we born in Vietnam and not in a rich country like America?” I once asked my mother when I was a kid. It was a question that, while growing up, I myself found the answer to without realizing it.

I was born in Vietnam, one of the poorest countries in the world, the country of an S shape that has just recovered from centuries of Chinese invasion, decades of French occupation and years of bombardment by Americans. Many of our family’s dinner conversations were of wartime stories my parents told about their childhood. I will never forget one story that my mother told me. She said that when the Americans bombed North Vietnam, each house had an underground shelter. Every time they heard the announcement, “The enemy’s planes will come in five minutes,” from the loudspeakers on the streets, everyone, regardless of what they were doing, would hide in the shelters in hopes of surviving. While children and the elderly were evacuated to the countryside to avoid the bombings, the adults stayed on in Hanoi to continue working. As a child, my mother wrote to her mother who was working in the city, “When you visit me, could you bring me a piece of meat just the size of a matchbox please?” She also told me how she rode her bike frantically back to Hanoi after each bombing trying to find her parents, and make sure they were still alive.

If one were to live in Vietnam and witness the consequences of war thirty years after it has ended, one would understand that war cannot be justified and that there is no such thing as a good war. Even when the war ends, its effects persist. Even now, in Vietnam, children are born everyday with birth defects because their parents were infected by Agent Orange. You can see veterans who lost their legs or arms begging on the streets. Numerous mothers who lost their husbands and sons in the war live in loneliness and suffering in their olden days. Poverty, suffering, grief, and bitterness are ubiquitous. My mom told me that my grandparents could have immigrated to France during the French occupation if they had wanted to. I asked her disappointedly, “Why didn’t they?” Her answer was simple, “They love Vietnam.”

My parents survived the war; they studied and grew up in the midst of all the bombings and poverty. I was too young to understand the war and the suffering it caused, and I could not figure out how people could possibly live when they knew they could get killed any time. I asked stupidly, “Why didn’t we just give up to the French or Americans and enjoy the prosperity they bring?” My mom explained, “We are a nation. We don’t want to be separated or colonized. We want freedom and unification.”

My parents hardly made ends meet when they raised me, but they inspired me to have dreams and ambitions and to reach higher. My father recalled how they saved just enough money each week to take me to a Pho stall on the street, and buy me a bowl of Pho noodles while they fed me and watched me eat. Only after I had had enough would he finish the portion remaining in the bowl. My grandfather, while babysitting for me when I was a toddler, would write endless lines of “Professor Le Suong Mai” on a piece of scratch paper. It was his dream that I pursue the education he had to give up. My parents never let me have what I wanted because they wanted me to learn to stand on my own feet as they did.

When I was eight years old, I came across some view books of universities abroad, and could not believe how such beautiful places could exist compared to the old broken desks, chairs, and blackboards in the classrooms in Vietnam. I asked my mom out of curiosity, “What is the best university in the world?” She said it was Oxford, and I told myself as a joke that I wanted to go to Oxford. Of course, it was just out of the question for any poor Vietnamese at that time to study abroad. My mom just said, “Study hard and all your dreams will come true.” Ten years later, I was holding an acceptance letter from Oxford University, only having to give up the offer in tears because I could not get a scholarship to attend the school.

I did not learn to love my country and become more concerned about social justice, poverty, and peace until I went abroad. My first awareness of my Vietnamese identity came from the foreigners’ “WOW” reaction when I said, “I am from Vietnam.” While attending high school in England, I faced some unpleasant experiences as a foreigner. I was frustrated to see how some lucky students in rich countries take their education opportunity for granted. If the poor Vietnamese students who were starved of education were given the money and opportunities, they could come to do great things in their lives. Despite this, I came to like Westerners in general the more I made friends with them. My teachers in England told me how they participated in demonstrations against the war when they were young. I learned that most Americans protested to end the war, and understood that American soldiers who served their country in the war did not know that they were sent to kill innocent people. In addition, for the first time, I met some Vietnamese abroad, whom we call Viet kieu and look down upon at home for leaving the country and supporting the Americans during the war. Nam, whom I met at Brandeis, took great efforts to help poor children in Vietnam through fundraising activities in the US. He has never seen Vietnam. As I got to know the Viet kieus and understand their points of view and their reasons for fleeing the country, I tried to tolerate our differences and relinquish my prejudice against them. Throughout my three years abroad, I have constantly fought within myself to accept that some of my beliefs and values have changed. I hope I have changed for the better.

My friends and I were the first generation born in peace. We grew up full of ambition and dreams, hungry for knowledge, and enjoyed our country’s freedom for which our parents shed their blood. We try very hard for a better future, and many of us have earned scholarships to study abroad. Some have expressed their desire to return home and contribute to Vietnam after graduating from college. However, many refuse to do so. They think that Vietnam is too poor a country to provide them with the opportunity to fully develop their potential. I, however, agree with J. F. Kennedy that we should, “Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.” What is the use of getting a good education if you cannot contribute to your country? If all talented people go away, who will help our country? I want to set up a charity one day to help the poor in Vietnam, to open a university to bring quality education to poor students, and to help reconcile Vietnamese people from the wounds and misunderstanding the war has created.

I have found the answer to my childhood question. I was lucky to be born in Vietnam to see so much more of life, to appreciate life and peace. It is also my goal to help my country escape from poverty and suffering. I dream of strolling down a narrow sidewalk in the afternoon, feeling the earthly smell of beef noodle in the air, seeing the sidewalk café lit by a dim white light, watching the street vendors making a living and seeing innocent schoolgirls in white ao dais…

Mai Le (2007) is a second year student at Brandeis University majoring in Biophysics and Economics.