Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home

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Vietnam (graphic image warning)

***Warning, graphic images of the effects of war and Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people below***

It turns out, there’s a name for the kind of travel I enjoy. Apparently, it’s called dark tourism. My most recent example is a trip I took to Vietnam last month. I didn’t fly down there to swim in the ocean, or visit Monkey Island and laugh at the exploits of primates trying to pawn food off silly tourists.

For me, the biggest draw to Ho Chi Minh City was the museum previously titled The Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. It’s now, in a time of better international relations, The War Remnants Museum.

The first exhibit we saw was a dedication to the photographers of the war, the first war captured in living color, on video, in detail. When the war started photographs were in black and white, but part of what turned American sentiment against the war was the color movies coming out of the war, of the actual suffering of the people there, the people who were living in a war zone.

But the exhibits that spoke to me, and there were more than one, were the exhibits on the effects of Agent Orange. For a little background, the Vietnam War was fought on one side by foreign soldiers (along with South Vietnamese) who stood out, and on the other side, almost exclusively by North Vietnamese (and other Asians) who blended in quite well, especially to the Americans who couldn’t really tell the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese tended to use guerrilla tactics, and so one strategy of the Americans became the deforestation of areas of combat. One of the most common deforestation chemicals used was Agent Orange.

And then there’s this picture, that looks like it could be a picture of a modern ailment, a child with Zika Virus.


I definitely paused for a long moment, wondering if there is any connection between Zika and Agent Orange. There is no reason for me to think that, just…it startled me and had me thinking hard about the effects of the things that people do to the environment

Of course the museum has a slant. Vietnam is a country run by the communist government we tried to defeat in the war. But the numbers simply don’t lie. Strip away the propaganda, and the numbers are still there.


I mostly chose not to  photograph the people in HCMC who were missing limbs or body parts because of Agent Orange, but they were not hard to find. And one night, wandering around alone, I did find one merchant, who spoke enough English to tell me he had been born without a leg, who graciously allowed me to take his photograph to use in my “stories” on the internet.



Of course…I didn’t spend my whole three days in Vietnam wandering the one, rather small, museum. I even left Ho Chi Minh City for a day. The intent, upon arrival, was to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese during the war. But…we decided to try something new and take an actual tour. And in the interest of seeing something of the Vietnamese culture, we wound up in the Mekong Delta.

For me, there was a lot of lighthearted fun in that tour, but before that, overshadowing the fun of the delta was this


That’s an American soldier, walking through the Mekong, weapon dry, even if nothing else was.

That was…intense. And it colored everything else that I saw. Not enough that I didn’t have fun, but enough to keep me aware of where in the world I was.

My favorite experience in the delta, was the honey island. Our tour guide showed us the hive of bees and slowly blew a few bees around before putting his finger into the hive and eating honey that moments before had been swarming with bees. He asked if anyone else wanted to try, and my group shied away, but I have been trying to experience the world. And so I put my finger into a hive of bees and that was the best honey I have ever eaten, licked off my finger after scooping it straight from the live comb.

So, what does any of that have to do with my search for home? Not much, I suppose, except this. Never have I been ashamed to be an American. Looking at the pictures in the museum, and being aware that the same weekend that I was looking at these results of Americans being closed off to things that are different, was the same weekend the first “Muslim ban” was announced. The people of Vietnam were nothing but kind and polite to me, they were friendly, struggled through the language barrier with me, and shared friendly banter and kind smiles. But at the airport, my blue passport, for the first time ever, bought me trouble with security. Because my blue passport told the officials, at least, that I was not there in a friendly capacity. My blue passport indicated to them that I might be trouble.




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Why is there always water?

In Beijing there is this weird little quick that I have wondered about since I first got here and I was so excited to finally have it explained this week.


Literally every garbage can in a subway station has a water bottle or a plastic cup of water sitting on top of the can. Sometimes there is a plastic flower inside the cup, but the water is always a part of the equation. It was so confusing to me.

I don’t really know if other countries do this. In Chicago I ride the train from suburb to city, but had very rarely ridden any other form of public transit, so maybe the whole world already knows what this cup is for. But it blew my mind to find out this week, it’s in case there’s a fire in the garbage.

Like…this is a country where peopple smoke…everywhere. No. Literally everywhere. I can’t think of a single place I’ve been where I didn’t see people smoking or see a designated place for people to smoke (ie in the library you have to go to a designated spot). People smoke on the street. In the clubs. In restaurants. Everywhere. So as a precaution, they have water available in case a lit cigarette gets tossed in a trash can and a fire flares up.

Beijing is brilliant.

And…semi-related. People here smoke everywhere. So imagine my shock the other night, when I was sitting at a friend’s apartment, watching them pass a joint around the couch, and then when that was gone, get up and go out to the balcony to smoke a cigarette. Cause the don’t smoke in the house cause “that’s nasty.”




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More school, more choices, more work

I’ve begun looking into online graduate programs. For years I’ve thought that I would do a graduate program in history, but the programs that I like all have one requirement that is tricky for me – a foreign language requirement to read and speak the language of my research at the college level. My research would be in Mandarin, a language I have struggled to pick up despite having lived in Beijing for the last six months. Whoever told me immersion was the way to learn had never tried to immerse in a completely foreign language, in a country where everyone wants to practice my native language rather than sit through my stilted and toneless Chinese.

I’ve begun to consider a graduate degree in education. My original intent was to try to find a way to get an elementary ed endorsement, but that can’t be done completely online because there is a requirement to student teach, which can’t be done from Beijing. I’ve put a lot of thought into what that means and I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy teaching English and so I will look at an ELL (English language learners) degree.

So now I compose emails to the various ELL heads of online graduate programs, trying to find the best choice. In every email I write, I explain my background – I have a secondary ed degree, and a teacher’s license in IL. I’m currently teaching ESL in Beijing, China and have recently obtained my TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certification. And yesterday I heard back from one of these supervisors who was very determined to ensure that my background has, in fact, prepared me to teach English as a second language. That one took me a moment to wrap my mind around.

In any case, this doesn’t help determine my timeline. It doesn’t really help me figure out what I’ll be doing, except that I am pretty sure I’ll be teaching in America again at some point and I want to be prepared for that. But at least it gives me something else to think about rather than always wondering what I’m going to do next.

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What does home even feel like?


I was sitting in the backseat of the car, listening to my friends debate about how to get to an ice cream shop. We were on vacation at the time, in a tiny Michigan town that made you U-turn instead of turning left on the main street, actively driving at the time and I knew exactly what we needed to do to find the street. I said it once and neither of my friends responded. I said it again and one of them turned around and told me I was wrong. I sat back, still pretty sure I was right, but not willing to argue, not sure enough of myself to make my opinion heard.


My Beijing roommate and I were sitting in our new apartment debating how to get to our subway stations in the morning. We’d wandered a bit a few hours before, and gotten lost enough that we’d had to ask for directions (more than a little complicated when neither of us speak the language), but now I was sure. I knew exactly how to get to my station, and I knew exactly how to get to hers. She argued with me a few times. She told me she knew how to get to her station and then gave me directions that I knew were wrong.

But I’m here to learn to stand up and speak my opinion (among other things), and so I did. I told her how to get to her station and then we decided to take a walk and make sure we knew what to do in the morning. I showed her my way, and we realized I had figured out the shortest possible route to the train station.


I’m more sure of myself here. I’m not sure why. I don’t speak the language, at least not well. I can’t read the language at all, not even enough to make educated guesses about what things mean. I can recognize the kanji for man and RMB, but that’s not really that helpful in figuring out how to function. And yet I’m very sure of myself here. I stand up for myself and I don’t let people take advantage of me. When I’m annoyed, I use my words and I tell the person I’m annoyed at instead of just brushing it off as me being unreasonable.

I feel very at home in Beijing and while I have reasons to go back to Chicago in a year, reasons that are quite powerful in fact, if that’s what I do, I want to bring this new certainty with me, the ability to stand up for myself and make my opinion heard.