The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. Faith Gongaware, ’21 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Honors Scholar, Global and International Studies, and Supply Chain and Information Systems, won Honorable Mention for her essay, “Closer Than You Think,” in response to this prompt:

“Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” David Foster Wallace
What makes us the same?

Closer Than You Think

The thick, black straps of my Tevas rub my feet as I dance around on the concrete floor. My hands grow weary of clapping to the beat and my palms begin to burn, but in the moment none of these discomforts bother me. Crinkles line my eyes as I laugh and sing an exuberant chorus of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” blaring over the crackling speakers. I close my eyes for a moment and breathe deeply, inhaling the scents of a rural Vietnamese night intermingling with the smell of leftover pho. As the mixed group of Vietnamese and American students sing out “Our time is short, this is our fate, I’m yours,” my eyes sting with tears. I hesitate as I open my eyes to take in the joy being shared around the circle.

After my junior year of high school, I spent a month in Vietnam. My older sisters had completed similar sojourns and returned heartbroken to leave their new experiences. I, however, could not understand how grief after one month could rival the anguish of leaving home.

My aversion to this persisted through our first days in Saigon. After a fourteen hour flight, the overwhelming combination of exhaustion, heat, and unusual foods and smells brought me to homesick tears. I swore I would never feel that same heartache. Fortunately, it was then I met Nancy.

The homestay of the trip began on our third day. I stood in the hotel lobby, weighed down both by my twenty-seven pound hiking backpack and heart-pounding anxiety, waiting to be separated from my companions and whisked away through the chaotic streets of Saigon. I had grown more accustomed to the culture, and while my outlook on Vietnam was brightening, nerves remained. What if my Vietnamese family and I had nothing in common? What if we spent the next week in uncomfortable silence? The “what ifs” nagged me. My racing thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a short girl in a baby blue shirt introduced as Nancy, my new sister. After arriving home and receiving a warm welcome from her parents, we left to sightsee.

Downtown, we ended up at her favorite cafe. As we sipped tangy passion fruit juice, we began to connect. We giggled over tales of teenage drama and different customs from our countries. When we returned home, I realized that our conversation had been one of the most natural I ever had. All this time, I had been terrified of how unalike my host family and I would be. However, the only significant difference between us was where called home.

While in Vietnam, these similarities followed me everywhere. I bonded with my second host sister over her chemistry coursework and love of dogs. One night in Saigon, I rode a cab alone to my homestay, sitting quietly next to the Vietnamese driver. Eventually, he asked in broken English, “Where… you from?” Surprised, I quickly answered, “America!” and then tried in Vietnamese, “um… Mỹ?” He smiled “Oh, Mer-eekah!” We laughed and spent the next fifteen minutes attempting to communicate. These moments, though seemingly small, led me to a greater realization. No matter how far you travel or how different everything may seem, our humanistic similarities that bind us together are inherently obvious. We all share founding values of passion, curiosity, humor, and most of all, kindness.

On my last day in Vietnam, three weeks after my homestay ended, Nancy visited me once more. She helped me pack and we laid on my bed giggling again. When she left, I hugged her tight and watched her motorbike melt into the bustling streets, tears welling in my eyes. I already missed her and couldn’t imagine leaving the country I had grown to love. Later, my last sights of Vietnam faded through an airplane window. Twenty hours and two flights passed before touching down at LAX. I shared more tearful farewells with my group, and boarded a flight home. When we departed from Saigon, my heart ached like nothing I had felt before and continued to do so through my final landing. I finally understood my sisters’ sorrow as I realized that Vietnam, once so foreign and formidable, had felt like home by the time I left.

I occasionally close my eyes and think back to those moments in Vietnam. I remember the wind on my face at a bird sanctuary, laughing with Nancy until my stomach hurt, or the straps of my Tevas while I danced at the cultural exchange. And although my heart still aches when I reminisce, I smile. I smile because of everything I learned and loved. I smile because in a city 8,864 miles from me, there is a short girl in a baby blue shirt who reminds me the world is not so wide after all.

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