A few weeks ago, I went to a barbershop. The girl who washed my hair is just 14 years old. She is the oldest one in the family of five children. Her father is a house painter and her mother is a housewife. I asked if the barber girl wanted to go back to school so that I could find a way to help. She shook her head. She was happy with the job. She could make money to support her family. Going to school would not help her at the moment. And of course, I could not force someone to go to school if he or she did not want to.
Twenty years ago, I was just a normal girl like her. My dream at that time was just as simple as any woman in my village. I wanted to grow up, get a husband then settle down.
Unfortunately, life did not wait for me to grow up. When I was 6, my family went bankrupt, my father went from the richest man in the village to a bomb sawyer, which almost killed him in a bomb accident. Later, he immigrated to the South to start a new life. He took my mother, my older brother and my younger sister with him, but not me. I was considered the smartest kid in the family and there was no future for me in the new area which did not even have a primary school.
My relatives looked after me. They were poor though and taking me into their families was like taking a bag of weed which just caused them trouble. I wanted to get out of that situation and I knew that the only way was through education. Over the years, I was always the best student in the school in my hometown.
When I was 14, I moved to the South to reunite with my family. I soon found out that my parents were not in a good relationship. I suffered from autism. I stopped talking to my father as I hated the way he treated my mother. I hated my mother too because she became a coward and depended so much on my father. I asked my teacher to help me settle in a dorm, where I could be away from my parents to focus on my study. School became my friend, my home, and my hiding place.
When I graduated from college and got a good job, I returned home and told my mother that I could take responsibility for her if she wanted to divorce. She said no. I then decided to quit my job to travel the world, to enjoy a life that I had never experienced. I was moved to do things that women in my country didn’t normally do. Travel gave me a chance to see many countries, learn about different cultures, encounter many types of people and to ultimately understand the world that I was living in.
The first time I applied for this fellowship, I failed. I had not known why I had wanted to go back to college until one day I sat among my backpacker fellows hearing them talking about boy and girl stuff and I questioned myself: “Is that all about life?”. No, I did not want to live a life that is boring. I did not want to live a life that is all crazy either. I wanted to live a life that is meaningful so that other young people can look up on me and know how to change theirs. That was when I decided to apply for the scholarship again. And now I want to express my sincere thanks to Rotary. Thank you for failing me the first time to teach me the lesson of being persistent and helping me find my true passion. Thank you for accepting me the second time to make me believe that hard work always pays off in the end. Especially thanks to Lyn Kenny and David Warren, the two amazing Rotarians who never gave up on me during the last two years. And thank you to my great mentor — Roger for guiding me and having been together with me through thick and thin.
During my last Tet holiday, I traveled back to my hometown to visit my relatives. My aunt was making food to serve my uncle and his friends. I was the only woman who was invited to sit at the table with the men. My uncle was proud of me, and he wanted to introduce me to others. He did not know for sure what I am going to study. But he knew about America, the country he fought against in the past and now the country he wishes to live in.
I put my cup of beer down, walked to the kitchen and told my aunt to stop making food to come and join us. She said that she did not drink, she did not know what to say with other men, so she refused to join. She did not realize that I did not need her to drink or talk. All I needed from her was to get out of the kitchen, to prove that women do not belong to it, to tell men that women also have the right to sit at the same table with them.
Some said that I should stop studying and start doing my own business because schools do not help much. But blaming schools for not teaching you well is just like blaming life for not being easy. I do not think life should be easy. In contrast, life should give you lemons to teach you how to fight the good fight to truly live in it. And therefore, it is not school’s job to make me successful. It is my job to take the advantage of what school gives me to create my own opportunities. And I know that I am going to prove it during the next two years at Duke University.