who we are

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That’s how these things go. I’m always inevitably pulled into these awkward situations where I’m bound to engage in semi-formal conversations with neighbors and distant relatives all over this stretch of dirt path. Everything seems a little smaller every time I come here, from this dirt road to my grandparents’ house where I had spent most of my summers as a kid. The fact is, everything has gotten bigger. I can tell from the narrowing river inlet that has graced the front of our house for as long as I can remember.

I’m reminded of how different we all are now. We’ve adapted and evolved to become the essence of who we are.  Is it a product of our environment? Absolutely. But that’s no surprise. I’m more interested in what connects us. Take my little cousin Nhí (his nickname) for example. He and I had a lengthy conversation tonight catching up on the ten plus years that have passed us. I stayed silent for the most part, listening intently only to decipher a fraction of our conversation. Admittedly I have no knowledge of what he was saying, but nonetheless, I caught up quickly.

I’ve known he has had a rough beginning. We grew up together in this village, though I was more fortunate than he. Tonight, he spoke with an overwhelming sense of honesty as if he had speculated my apprehension in his words. He is now a husband, a father, and a salesman/electrician. Previously he was a delivery driver for an insecticide company traveling throughout the Mekong delta into Cambodia and Laos. He proceeded to tell me about a slew of other professions he has had, some in conjunction with others, just earning enough to feed his family in this tough economy. He insinuated a lack of resources and the demands for his type of work changes on a daily basis. I can see his eyes gleaming for new opportunities, and his brain forming new schemes as we spoke. I followed the lines on his forehead down to his cheeks stippled by the sun. It was not with a sense of curiosity or judgement, but with pure affection and admiration. I realized how much of him and his life I did not know. How he had to navigate through childhood and adult life on his own. How he had managed to stay afloat to support himself, his wife, and his child. The harsh conditions of living in this place forced him to be skillful, resilient, and a lot of times, cunning. I could tell at times when he puts his head down mid-sentence that he was not proud of the things he had done, and that’s just it.  In that way we are the same. We meet at this junction where we do what we must. We survive.

We lived separate lives, on separate continents.  Like our environments, we mold ourselves to get where we need to go, and who we need to be. Just like my grandparents’ house, just like the narrowing river, we too transform with time. I still remember the sparkle in his big brown eyes when he was young, and yes, they still shine. Even though the lines on his face, the hair on his chin, or the calluses on rugged his hands may have tried to disguise the boy I knew before, he and I are still very much the same. And in that moment, I began to understand, who we are.

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