DR. JOHN HOPKINS
Dr. John Hopkins is an elite chemistry professor and has been VSA’s long-standing advisor. Equipped with knowledge of the Vietnamese people and culture, Dr. Hopkins continues to guide VSA throughout its years.
In the thoughts of Dr. Hopkins
In the central highlands of Vietnam there is a small town along the sea coast. The locals call it Qui Nhon, I call it home. I don't know why I feel so attached to this community. Perhaps I lived there in a previous life with a wife and several wonderful children. In the far reaches of my mind I seem to remember that on quiet rainy days she made banh xeo for us and it became a family tradition whenever it rained. In the central region we make them in very thin small pancakes something like French crepes in the West.
One day in July 2000 I was walking with my camera meeting people and learning about Vietnamese customs. I met the gentleman in the picture and he graciously agreed to pose for a photograph. As you can see he has a dislocated shoulder. My friend in the photograph is just one of the many poor people in Vietnam that do not have money for health care and are forced to live in great discomfort. This handicap really made his life difficult. You see, he makes his living carrying baskets of produce on his shoulders in a contraption the Vietnamese call thung.
After the photograph was taken he invited me into his home that by coincidence was just down the street. I met his son and daughter-in-law and we sipped hot tea together in the small front room of the house that served as a bicycle repair shop. It was an amazing visit. We sat together in the hot sultry Vietnamese heat enjoying each others company even though we did not share a common spoken language. Yet, somehow intuitively, I felt a deep emotional connection. We were simply human beings, separated by culture, but connected as brothers. As we relaxed together, a mass of humanity passed by their home out in the street. Everywhere I looked there were people struggling to make a living. There were men hauling blocks of ice on their bicycles, people carrying chickens, snakes and every conceivable food. I even saw a man hauling a full sized refrigerator on his bicycle! The feeling of that mass force of life is truly exhilarating.
In December of 2000 I went back to Vietnam to visit my "hometown" in Qui Nhon. I went back to the home of these friends and brought them a copy of the photograph I had made. It was then that I learned what being Vietnamese was all about. To my astonishment, the family did not know the man in the photograph! He wasn't the elder of the family as I had earlier assumed. As it turned out he was just a random passerby.
As a Westerner, I find this absolutely astonishing. Could you imagine a situation in the United States where a stranger that you do not know knocks on your door and says, hey I just met this Russian man on the street let's invite him in for tea? Would you be thrilled at the possibility and invite everyone into your home as your wife scurried off to the kitchen to make tea for the visitors?
It was at that instant I realized that Vietnam was not simply an exotic place with interesting buildings and women running around in funny conical hats (non la). Vietnam is a magical place like nowhere else on earth where people still prize the value of human companionship.