This article, a winner of Shareable’s Share or Die Storytelling Contest, originally appeared on Shareable.net.
Julian and I had been traveling side-by-side almost 24 hours a day. So, it wasn't until two weeks into the trip that I started to notice this awkward thing about Vietnam. The first time it happened it was dusk. Julian was at a tiny copy shop on the side of a busy road in Hanoi; he was making 30 copies of our storytelling workshop packet, for the workshop we were holding with climate activists the next day, and it was taking forever.
I had to pee and I was bored, so I went for a walk in search of a bathroom. I stood at the edge of the road watching the cars weave and whiz by me. I couldn't find the courage to cross the street. The week before, a Vietnamese friend had told me to just close my eyes and step out, and trust the cars will go around me. She said the only time people get hit in Vietnam is when they hesitate because they are trying to predict what the driver will do. I paced back and forth, trying to muster up the courage. I couldn't convince myself to close my eyes, but I stiffened my back and imagined I was Frankenstein, walking step by step, trusting that the cars, scooters, and vans would go around me. They did. And as I took my last step out of the traffic, I felt a rush of wind from a van passing too close behind me and I thought I heard an “I love you” fly out from the window. I wondered if they could have been talking to me.
I headed to a building with bright lights at the end of the road. When I got to the gate, I asked the thin, little, 60-year-old security guard if I could use the bathroom. He didn’t speak English, but after a few tries he understood and he nodded enthusiastically, saying, “Toilet, toilet!” and pointing to the bathroom door as he shepherded me toward it.
When I came out, he was standing there waiting for me. I laughed and said goodbye to him, he nodded and smiled big. It looked like he wanted to say something, so I turned around and looked back. He quickly and quietly said, “I love you,” and a smile lit up across his face. Turns out that almost everyone in Vietnam knows how to say “I love you” in English.
My project, the Million Person Project, is all about love, and I must say the word love 100 times a day. I am constantly blabbing on about our oneness, about our universal love, and about how all that is wrong in the world is because of our ability to deny sharing our inherit love for one another. Actually, leaving my job, my apartment, and all my friends in San Francisco to start the Million Person Project have all been in an attempt to prove to myself that life can really just be about love, about being all of who you are, and finding and sharing that common humanity with anyone. Yet, when confronted with a sweet old man stranger, with soft eyes and and pants hiked up well above his belly button, telling me that he loved me, I stood there awkwardly, rolled my eyes and then walked away. I had made it 30 feet down the road when I looked back and saw him standing at the gate. I shouted, “I LOVE YOU, TOO!” I felt weird about myself, but oh well.
When I rounded the corner, I just about bumped into Julian. The copier had broken down and it was going to be another hour or so. “Was that you yelling I love you?” He asked. He looked at me like I was crazy. I laughed and tried to brush it off.
It was the first of many I love yous I shared with people in the streets in Vietnam. Anytime Julian and I were apart, I love yous would be hurled at me. When Julian was at the ATM, when Julian was taking too long trying on suits, or when Julian refused to go to the internet café, I would walk down the sidewalks alone and just field the I love yous from men or kids riding by on bikes, out car windows, or from shop owners out their front doors. It always felt like more of a greeting to an obvious foreigner than any sort of pick-up line. It was their way of saying something nice in my language – a kind of "Hey, nice to meet you. You look friendly. I hope you enjoy our country!" It was all summed up in "Hi, I love you" -- four simple words they could share with me.
But, for me, it was boot camp in practicing what I preached and in fighting through the awkwardness to stand by what I know is deeply true to me: that we all actually love each other, even as strangers on the street. And, if we can commit to sharing that reality with one another, the world will be a much better place. So I committed to saying I love you back, no matter what -- or, at least, I committed to doing my best. The embarrassment was too much sometimes to shout it out, especially as I Frankenstein-stomped across traffic. In those cases, I would just say it under my breath. “I love you, too,” I'd whisper, just to stay straight with the universe.