“We discussed everything from Vietnamese pop culture to the global economy.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Jessica Lee
Age: 25
Hometown: Minneapolis
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Cantonese (fluent), Mandarin (intermediate)
Degree: Masters in Design
University: Institute of Design in Chicago
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Social Entrepreneurship in Hanoi, Vietnam
Duration: 12 weeks
Start month: April 2015
Claim to fame: Spent three months backpacking throughout China!

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
Before I started my Master’s degree, I wanted to volunteer abroad to experience another culture and to challenge myself to live somewhere different. I wanted the experience of learning from both the locals that I’d meet in my job but also from the international community of volunteers whom I’d live with. UBELONG provided both, complete with an admirable mission and a strong reputation to boot. UBELONG also had the causes I wanted to work on, and I ultimately chose to volunteer in social entrepreneurship in Hanoi for 3 months.

What did you take from the experience?
So much has happened in 3 months! From the volunteering perspective, I learned about how NGOs operated in Vietnam and I experienced their work life and culture. Since the NGO I worked with was relatively new, I used my business background to polish up their presentations and videos to be more professional and helped edit funding applications with a stronger voice. I became very close to my coworkers and we discussed everything underneath the sun, from Vietnamese pop culture to the global economy. In 3 months, even though I tried a new dish of local food almost every weekday, I still hadn’t tried all the different dishes, and instead was told I had tried maybe 75% of it! One weekend, my coworker took us to his hometown an hour outside of the city. We did a little sightseeing up a mountain with a gorgeous view and later spent time with his family, conversing in hand gestures over some locally bought fruit.

At the volunteering house, there were about 20 people living there at any given time so there was always company! People were from all over the world and bonds were made over dinner and nights out, with people aged 18 all the way to 65. I heard stories from everyone, from their time serving in the Vietnam War to another volunteer’s childhood growing up on the French coast. As I was American, the other volunteers also loved being able to practice their English with me and I learned tons of funny phrases from their home countries. I definitely came out with some lifelong friends.

Tell me about somebody you met who impressed you?
On some weekends, I would travel outside of the city. For one trip, I went north to Ha Giang, a mountainous region of farmers and ethnic groups mostly living in poverty. I hired a guide to take me around for 3 days and the guide, a man named Tan, knew English, Vietnamese and 9 ethnic languages (the ethnic groups living in northern Vietnam each have their own language). He was incredibly social and on the way, he could just as easily capture the attention of a group of 9 local children and teach them Vietnamese songs on the side of the road, just as he could quickly befriend a local grandmother and get invited into her home to talk about the benefits and disadvantages of using machines for farming rather than water buffalo. Having grown up in the Ha Giang region himself as a farmer, he moved to Hanoi with his wife and is now a guide for people wanting to visit Ha Giang. Never have I met someone like this who could traverse cultural boundaries as easily as him. He was like the perfect Ha Giang ambassador.

In a sentence or less, best advice for fitting in with the local culture?
Just smile and laugh- it transcends cultural borders and communicates without the need for words or gestures. For me, it has developed in short connections with complete strangers. Once, it began pouring rain and as the wind was whipping away the shop awnings, I started laughing because of how comical everything was. A woman running across the street towards me caught my smile and she began laughing too and threw off her poncho in defeat.

Another time on the bus, I had a conversation with a lady who decided to sit down and share my seat (which was meant to seat one person, mind you). She kept talking in Vietnamese and I would just smile and nod. Twenty minutes later, I arrived at my stop, turned to her with a smile and said bye. She never found out that I couldn’t understand a word she said, but she seemed so happy to find a stranger to talk to that I didn’t stop her. Life can be funny sometimes!

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Related post:
Meet Deea Ariana, a Johns Hopkins SAIS undergrad volunteered with UBELONG at the Social Entrepreneurship project in Hanoi, Vietnam.