Universal language

2015 Sibley-Ocheyedan graduate ventures to Vietnam for a unique opportunity to explore her cultural background.

Marissa Pham (right) snaps a photo on Hanoi, Vietnam's Train Street, where shopkeepers along the street are required to move their tables and chairs where customers sit periodically for the train to pass. (Special to The Globe)

LANG SON, Vietnam — A former Sibley, Iowa resident is getting accustomed to life 8,000 miles away.

Marissa Pham, 22, left for more than a month ago for Vietnam, where she’ll spend the next 10 months teaching as a Fulbright scholar English language assistant.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life,” Pham said of the uncertainty following her recent graduation from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia with bachelor degrees in human health and sociology.

From now through the end of May, Pham will assist Vietnamese 10th- through 12th-graders at Chu Van An High School for the Gifted with their English language skills. More specifically, her role as an English language assistant will be to help them with pronunciation and speaking skills, something their main teacher can’t provide as a non-native speaker.

“I’ll also be teaching them about American culture or what it means to me and how I fit into that,” Pham said.


Half-Vietamese, the 2015 Sibley-Ocheyedan graduate said the 10-month program presents a unique opportunity to explore her culture.

“Because I grew up in my community in Iowa, there weren’t any places for me to explore my culture at all, and I started getting really interested in it right after high school and starting college,” Pham said. “I thought going to Vietnam would be a really good opportunity for me to learn more about where my family comes from, catch up on everything I thought I missed growing up, while going back to my father’s home country and giving back in a way that maybe he couldn’t.”

Pham’s father, Quan Pham, immigrated to the United States at just 6 years old. It was the mid-1970s, and the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, had just fallen during the Vietnam War.

He hasn’t been able to return since, but he’s working on getting a passport and visa to visit his daughter during her experience. He now lives in a suburb of Chicago. Her mother, Shauna Carroll, and stepfather, Jeff Carroll, live in Sibley.

So far Pham has been able to explore the capital city, Hanoi. She just recently landed in Lang Son, a mountainous province along the Vietnam-China border she’ll call home until May or June.

Despite some communication difficulty, Pham said the people in Lang Son have been very welcoming and excited to see her.

“My being half-Vietnamese only allows me to look like I half fit in,” Pham said.

The reality of Lang Son differs from what the rural, unmodernized town in which she’d expected to be living.


Marissa Pham stops to snap a picture during a 6-hour hike near Sa Pa where she and friends hiked in the rain to visit three Vietnamese ethnic minority villages in the mountains. (Special to The Globe)

“I was shocked and surprised to find that my quality of life here is just as good as it is in America,” said Pham, adding that when she returns to America, she plans to tell others about what Vietnam is really like. “It may be developing, but it’s not anything like people back home expects it to be. It’s more industrialized, there’s people speaking English everywhere — they have almost everything we have in America and, in some places, more.”

While her priority is to explore as much of Vietnam as she can, Pham intends to make some time to visit nearby countries. She hopes to travel to Hong Kong, Laos, Bali, Cambodia and Thailand before returning to the U.S. next spring.

Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic and professional achievement.

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