Looking for hope in the rice paddies: lessons from my time in Vietnam
I was glad I’d packed boots. Though, to be honest, one wrong step and I would have sunk well past my waist into the muck of the rice paddies.
I was in Vietnam documenting the humanitarian and development work of Catholic Relief Services. My colleagues and I were spending the week with the Phan family, who lived just outside of Hoi An. (I have changed their name for privacy.) The juxtaposition was harsh: Hoi An is a coastal tourist town, known for its old-city charm and array of restaurants and shops. It is safe and prosperous and easy to pop in and out of as an outsider and still feel as though you have experienced something of authentic Vietnam.
The Phans lived about 20 minutes by car from our hotel, and their neighborhood was far from touristy. Their home was a simple, one-floor cement structure: two bedrooms, a small living space and a kitchen. They had erected a few other makeshift structures to house the pig and the cow and the chickens and the huge pot in which they cooked most of their meals. A few of their neighbors lived in much larger, much more elaborate homes, an odd contrast in this otherwise struggling farm community, but most shared the Phans’ simple lifestyle.
Relying on one crop to make a living is a risky business.
That lifestyle was a hard one. The rice paddies were their primary source of income, supplemented by what the cows, chickens and pigs could produce. Of course, relying on one crop to make a living is a risky business, particularly when your competition is literally everyone in the neighborhood. The fact that increasingly frequent and dangerous storms could completely wipe out your livelihood—the fields, the livestock and even your house, washed away and lost in a moment—kept these communities on the edge of poverty. The edge, in general.
So, we were traipsing through the rice paddies looking for snails. It was hot and wet and uncomfortable. Snails, as I would learn, were another source of income. And, protein. And for the Phan family and their neighbors, protein was in short supply. The growth of their two eldest sons had been stunted. They would never reach their full physical, mental and economic potential because they hadn’t received the nutrition they needed at a young age. As we wandered up and down the dusty street, we observed that their story was not uncommon. Their story is all too common in developing countries around the world.
No number of snails would fix that.
Snails were another source of income. And, protein was in short supply.
And yet, Mr. and Mrs. Phan set out each and every day, and often at night, too, to dig those slimy critters out of the muck. Hours spent under the hot Vietnamese sun meticulously combing through the paddies. Returning empty-handed to the old motorcycle, rolling along to the next field, the next snail-hunting ground, in the hope that their neighbors hadn’t already depleted the stock.
And then they would traipse back home, where the whole family would wash and pack the snails, bundle them up and weigh them, to be sold to a buyer from the city. Mrs. Phan would sit with her neighbors, bag of snails in hand—a bag that looked identical to that of her neighbors—and they would all get a bit of money for their hours of hard labor. No haggling, just acceptance of what the buyer offered.
I could not do it. In the sun and heat, holding tightly to my camera, I could barely keep up. It was so hot, so steamy, that each morning when we arrived at the house, we would wait 20 minutes just for our camera lenses to adjust to the heat; they became impossibly foggy the moment they were exposed to the day’s humidity. I peeled off layers of sweat-ridden clothes each evening, desperate for a shower. And I drank water like (really because) my life depended on it.
In the sun and heat, holding tightly to my camera, I could barely keep up.
Later in the week, when we learned that Mrs. Phan did not feel well, had been sick in the night, of course I advised her to take it easy. How could she not feel ill? So much sun, heat and hard labor. We can film you getting snails tomorrow, I said.
But, of course, that was not the primary worry. Mrs. Phan was 50 percent of the family workforce; her husband could not possibly collect as many snails without her. This was not about the stories I was there to write. It was about their livelihood.
We gave her the day off, at least from the pressure of our camera lenses. But she certainly didn’t relax. She did not get sick leave.
My encounter with the Phans was value-driven: I was documenting their story for a CRS Lenten Rice Bowl campaign on climate preparedness education. I believed there was some good that could be done to support a vulnerable family and community, to educate young people and to care for the environment. But the experience was an overwhelming one. My belief in my ability, and in the ability of Catholic Relief Services to make any difference at all, swung back and forth between hope and despair.
Mrs. Phan was 50 percent of the family workforce; her husband could not possibly collect as many snails without her.
We find ourselves in moments and situations that overwhelm us, in which our values are consumed by a fight-or-flight instinct. Everything collides, and we feel as though all we can do is remain standing. What is the value at stake here? Who are we called to be in this moment? We fail to recognize how we want to live, what drives us, and how that driving force might connect us to other people. Instead, we get trapped in self-isolation and despair.
A pernicious lie whispers in our ear: You have nothing to contribute to this moment. You have nothing of value in yourself. Just sit this one out.
That lie is not of God.
A pernicious lie whispers in our ear: You have nothing to contribute to this moment.
But the story I was there to find—the story I was tasked to bring back—was a story of hope.CRS programing is built upon these stories of hope. We offer invitations to families across the United States to enter into solidarity with families around the world through the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. And while it is tempting for the storyteller to lean into the more dire aspects of individuals’ stories—the unimaginable hunger, the constant anxiety over where the next meal will come from, the uncertainty over education, shelter and security—these more sensational details serve only to distance the reader from the real people these stories are about.
That kind of hunger sounds awful. Here’s a few bucks. I’m going to turn the page.
I cannot even imagine living like that. It’s too much. What else can I find on YouTube?
This way of life is too far removed from mine. We have nothing in common. This is someone else’s problem.
The story I was tasked to bring back—was a story of hope.
These kinds of emotions are action inhibitors. Fear leads to paralysis: I am overwhelmed and cannot think of any action worth taking. Apathy or self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The antidote lies in action motivators: emotions like urgency, righteous anger, solidarity and hope. “Because emotions are the medium through which we experience value,” writes Marshall Ganz, “they provide us with vital information about the way we ought to live our lives as well as the motivation to live them in that way.”
We do not romanticize hope but instead live in the harsh reality of the present. And yet we may point to concrete ways in which hope is made real and a real difference is made.
Finding and sharing that hope is hard work. But it is possible if we are persistent and observant, if we are as tenacious in discovering those threads of hope as if we were tracking down snails in a rice paddy.