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A Renegotiation of Identity in Vietnam

By Allie D'Amanda

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting to see while riding down the Mekong River in Vietnam, but it is surely an experience I will never forget.  I look around me. I see people who depend on the River’s every function to make it through another day, and I feel an uncontrollable wave of sadness.  I feel guilty as I cross my legs, clothed in expensive jeans, and push my professionally highlighted hair away from my eyes.  “These people have nothing,” I think to myself. 

As we drive by many houses on stilts, whose back yards empty into the river, I notice a small shack.  A woman is bathing in the water and her young child and dog sit on the porch.  We are a group of white skinned Americans, and like everywhere we go, people on Vietnam stop what they are doing and stare.  The woman looks at us and smiles, waving her arms like she is welcoming us home.  I wave back, and try my best to say “hello” in Vietnamese.  The little girl jumps up and down and waves one arm, while the other is holding a large knife.  I am immediately concerned.  I frown and I think to myself, “This little girl should not be holding a knife! What is her mother thinking?” 

Later, I ponder the meaning of my reaction to this site I have encountered.  I consider George E. Marcus’ essay on “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sites Ethnography,” and specifically his thoughts on renegotiation of the ethnographer.  He says, “In practice [one must] always conduct with a keen awareness of being within the landscape, and as the landscape changes across sites, the identity of the ethnographer requires renegotiation… [Haraway] argues persuasively for objectivity.” 

Thus, I try and shift my perspective; I try to think objectively.  I get angry at myself for having the reaction I did.  These people may have “nothing” by my standards, but they were smiling and appeared to be happy.  Wouldn’t this suggest that they might actually be content in their way of life?  Who am I to determine what makes people happy?  Am I so jaded by our consumerist and materialistic culture that I relate such things to happiness? 

I consider a later passage in Marcus’ essay, and decide not to judge myself too harshly.  He says, “One finds oneself with all sorts of cross-cutting and contradictory personal commitments.  These conflicts resolved, perhaps ambivalently, not by refuge in being a detached anthropological scholar, but in being a sort of ethnographer-activist, renegotiating identities in different sites as one leans more about a slice of the world system.”  These ideas stimulate me to reconsider my strategies of shifting perspective.

Instead of being completely objective, comparing different sites, (such as my life in the United States, and this family’s life in Vietnam), only to find conflicting emotions and contradictory conclusions, I should start by renegotiating my own perspective.  I remove myself from being a foreign “on-looker,” and I begin to appreciate the lifestyle these people live, trying not to mold my opinions of them based on my own experiences,  subjective opinions and world views.  I am now working with the site instead of against it.

  By the end of my journey, the Allie I knew in the beginning, will she have a new identity shaped by experiences with others and their differences?  To what extent should I actively renegotiate myself in order to learn more about slices of the world system without disrupting each site and the people within it?  How much do my reactions to these people have an effect on their identities?

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