Lessons of Home, Halfway Around the World
by Pablo Friedmann ’09
I quietly poked at the yellowish egg. What chickens made golden yellow eggs? I mused. Turns out they were duck eggs, a classic staple in the land of pho.
It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years. On a whim, I opted for a summer experience that would take me outside of my comfort zone. I was becoming too comfortable. It wasn’t right. I needed a challenge.
Before long, I found myself living in Ben Tre province. A short bus ride and two ferries later, I found myself in a small town called Mo Cay. As a 6-foot-1-inch man, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
In the mornings, a group of us helped a local family build a brick house. The work was backbreaking and exhausting. I hauled bricks and sand in burlap sacks from a canal to the worksite. For someone who had never worked in construction, it gave me new-found respect for the trade. We frequently took an hour-long lunch break and ate with a local family who whipped up some authentic dishes. Forget about fettuccine alfredo, it was all about vegetables, rice, ducks, pork, and a million different spices thrown in. This was no Ram’s Head buffet.
In the afternoon, we taught at a local elementary school. I was put in charge of the middle school science class. As a social sciences person, I felt slightly unqualified to teach science. Suffice to say that with the help of Vu, a fellow Vietnamese college student, we taught our students about air pressure, gravity, buoyancy, and the environment. The kids loved our projects. The only problem? They already knew most of the stuff we taught them.
Little did I know that this coastal province had some of the fiercest Viet Cong resistance during the Viet Nam War. Little did I know that an American military officer famously said, “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.” I wondered how a community and its people could welcome a generation of Americans whose parents had only recently waged war against them. Actions spoke louder words. It was a gesture that I’ve never forgotten about.
The late Eudora Welty often wrote about living in the South as a continual search for place. Growing up, I never really had a definitive place to call home. My parents are immigrants and the only connections to home are my parents’ native language and their cooking customs. Carolina gave me a shared sense of community that I never had growing up. Whether it was having a life-altering conversation with a friend, studying abroad in rural Viet Nam, tenting at Duke and cheering on our Tar Heels as we beat the Blue Devils on J.J. Redick’s and Shelden Williams’ senior night, or waiting nearly 7 hours the night before a political science final to hear then-Senator Barack Obama speak at the Dean Dome, I felt anchored in an institution that had shaped and enriched so many others before me. I felt part of something.
It was a strange feeling to say the least. It took a trip halfway around the world for me to realize how much I secretly craved a chicken cheddar biscuit from Time Out and a stroll through Polk Place. Really. Duck eggs were no match for the global palate of Chapel Hill.
The funny thing is that teaching in Viet Nam opened up my eyes to the possibility of working in a rural community. It was an experience that later motivated me to become a high school math teacher in rural North Carolina.
Pablo Friedmann ’09, of Newton, Mass., majored in international studies and now teaches high school math in Warrenton.