Tyler Buchanan is old enough to appreciate Americas history with Vietnam, and young enough to help build a better future for the southeast Asian country one house at a time.
The 19-year-old Wake Forest University sophomore from Huntersville recently returned from a two-week trip to South Vietnam, where he helped build two homes as part of the universitys ongoing association with the Peacework Village Network. Buchanans first international trip turned many of his preconceived notions upside down and changed how he looks at the world.
A lot of times, Americans generalize about things and other people in the world, said Buchanan, who went on the trip with 11 students and one professor. If other cultures got to know each other better, these generalizations would stop and people would have a better sense of the world.
When many Americans think of Vietnam, they visualize primitive, rural villages and jungles shown in film footage and pictures from the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago. Thats far from an accurate snapshot now, Buchanan said.
I was most surprised by the modernization there, he said. I expected it to be like I would immediately find myself in the middle of a jungle or staying in huts, sleeping in different villages or whatnot. But I found it to be similar in America in that its very urban in a lot of places, as well as rural areas where they grow rice and tend to farms.
You dont realize how many changes there have been, how theyve grown technologically and culturally, he said.
Working with a group of Can Tho University students, Buchanan also was surprised they were well spoken in English, and wanted to learn more about English. Most of them were very friendly and welcoming.
Collaborating with a local group helped diminish the appearance of affluent Americans coming to save the country: It was more like Americans coming in to help the Vietnamese fend for themselves.
The group worked on two homes in Phu My, a small village outside Rach Gia, near the Cambodian border.
Theyre not like houses in the sense that Americans think of, he said. Theyre more what people would think of like a shed: rectangular, concrete with a tin roof, tile floors and the basics. Theyre usually one story. Anything bigger is pretty rare.
Although the work was the primary reason for the trip, Buchanan said he will remember most the larger context he got from traveling the area.
He said the group arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), and went to the village outside Rach Gia for the service. We would stay in this little city in a hotel and drive maybe 30 minutes into the countryside to do the work.
Our actual service on the trip was six or seven days, so there were times when we were able to explore Vietnam. The first couple days we were in Ho Chi Minh City. We also went to the markets, went to a museum about the Vietnam War and went to the Cu Chi tunnels which is the big tunnel system that the Viet Cong had manufactured to secretly house Viet Cong soldiers and transport them from one area of the jungle to another.
Although he said the Vietnamese are far from affluent, its not as bad as what Ive heard about in Africa or India. Its poor in a sense that everyone is basically kind of the same: Everyone has basic houses, but the houses might be a little more upscale in some areas.
People ride motorbikes to get around. Cars are pretty rare. Whenever someone had a car, they were pretty rich.
Buchanans mother, Kim Buchanan, said she is happy her son was chosen for the trip, despite her initial worries.
I was concerned, his being on the other side of the world, but I tried to put it out of my mind, she said. Wake Forest has done this trip for many years, so I felt good about that.
It kind of put him in a different perspective about material things. He said they dont have much. They get out of life whats meant to be out of life. Hes gotten more conservative about money and has a better feel for whats really important.
Tyler said he had no fear about being a stranger in a faraway country: I actually felt safer there than I do in America sometimes. In America, you can walk down the street in the city and feel like someone could harass you or hurt you.
In Vietnam, theres a different kind of feeling: no real aggression or feeling of being threatened.
The trip cost him $3,500, which he collected via fundraisers, donations from friends and family, money saved after working as a lifeguard in Huntersville over the summer and an endowment at Wake Forest.
Buchanan might be asked about his trip as much as hes asked about his two presidential names. His mother said hes related to former President James Buchanan, but he said that isnt certain.
Id have to do some research on that, he said, laughing. We might have a distant lineage there. The president lived in Virginia, and my father is from Virginia.
Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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