For a young American traveler finding his way in a foreign land, the journey is challenging, particularly for a Franklin & Marshall College mathematics major with Type 1 diabetes. He made his experience in Vietnam the subject of his research.
In fall 2015, David Mix spent a semester abroad in the Asian nation’s largest city, Saigon. He studied public health and interned at a nonprofit that screened rural children for heart defects.
“I was studying Vietnamese 11 hours a week,” said Mix, a pre-med senior. “Because the country was so small, I got to go to every city and hear the different dialects and speak Vietnamese. I got to learn the dialect I wanted to learn, and that was in Saigon.”
Mix’s interest in Vietnam began in his suburban Philadelphia neighborhood, where some of his friends were children of refugees. Also, Vietnamese is one of the critically important languages to national security, one of the required language for becoming an FBI special agent.
“I had the most connections to Vietnamese culture,” Mix said. “I figured I would learn Vietnamese in order to be eligible to apply to be a special agent, and so I went to Vietnam to jump-start my Vietnamese learning.”
A John Marshall Fellow, Mix went to Saigon for two months in summer 2016 to become conversational so he could interview people he met and record their stories. Things didn’t go as planned, however.
“This time I was there alone, which was a very different experience since I didn’t have Americans to cushion me,” Mix said. “I had to become like a Vietnamese person.”
He changed his project’s scope to describing his studying of the language four hours a day at a school with guards at the gate, and interacting with people he met in his travels around Saigon.
Despite the intense, one-on-one language study regimen – he could only speak Vietnamese during the four-hour period – mastery eluded him.
“My Vietnamese wasn’t good enough that I could reach out to people and talk to them, but I could do it a little bit,” Mix said.
Another challenge was keeping refrigerated the needed insulin he brought to treat his diabetes. When power in the school was shut off for a day, his insulin was ruined, and he could not get more. He offset what insulin he had left with a low-carb diet.
“Those are some of the more difficult things about the culture,” Mix said.