Have It Both Ways: Perspective From a Progressive Ex-Pat

Like many Progressives, I am completely disillusioned with the American political system. Watching the Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate support and protect the Bush/Cheney administration has been the final straw. Congressional Democrats no longer have the cover of being members of a "powerless" minority. We can see them now for what they really are, and it sure ain't pretty.

I've walked my share of anti-war picket lines and I've watched as local news vehicles zipped by without pausing to document our presence. I've campaigned for a decent Democratic congressional candidate -- a veteran of the War in Iraq--only to see him lose to a Republican real estate agent who ran on a promise of voting to "rubber stamp" anything Bush wanted. I've written to and visited that Republican congressperson advocating progressive views on national priorities, especially regarding health care. (You can imagine how fruitful that conversation was.) I've written carefully documented critiques of government policy and had them published on the Op-ed page of my local newspaper-- only to see those pieces "balanced" by letters and articles offering character assassination and a call to "level Baghdad if people don't do what we say".

It's enough to make a progressive dispirited.

I don't live in the United States any more. My family and I have moved to Vietnam. I still read and contribute to Common Dreams, the Nation, and Salon.com. And I send contributions to both Dennis Kucinich (a true American hero) and John Edwards (a decent and electable guy if ever there was one). I plan to vote absentee in the next presidential election. Politically, I'm as informed and effective as I was when I lived in America. On a personal level, however, I am far more empowered than I ever was in the US.

Before quitting our jobs, selling our home, and disposing of our vehicles, my husband and I established a non-profit organization, Steady Footsteps, Inc., to frame the work that we wanted to do in Vietnam. Our assets, which were not--and never would be--sufficient to allow us to retire in the US, are enough to support us comfortably in Vietnam and to give us a start on the work of our organization.

For the price equivalent of one modest American car, our organization purchased motorbike helmets for every employee of the Da Nang City Health Department. (Motorbikes comprise 90% of the road traffic here in Vietnam and Traumatic Brain Injury is epidemic.) In return, the Da Nang Department of Health agreed to mandate helmet-wearing by every employee traveling to and from work. This project has received so much publicity, as the Vietnamese government and media work to enhance traffic safety, that I have become a bit of a celebrity--prompting cries of, "Oh, I saw you on TV!" wherever I go.

The helmet project, as well as my on-going, unpaid job of mentoring Vietnamese physical therapists and physical therapy students, has afforded me both access and credibility with decision-makers here and an opportunity to counter the influence of multinational corporations as they try to push the Vietnamese health care system towards the American private insurance model. Will my progressive ideas hold sway here? Who knows? But I am here full-time in a country where personal connections mean a lot and I think that I have a much better shot at influencing the delivery of health care here in Vietnam than I ever did in America. And, because I am present and plugged-in and personally aligned with Vietnamese people who genuinely want to help those less fortunate than themselves, I can discretely offer them support in small projects that they initiate themselves, such as replacing a roof for an indigent typhoon victim, buying seeds and gardening tools for an ethnic community, or pouring a concrete floor for a little mountain clinic.

So, buck up, Progressives! You may or may not bring down BushCo, but you, as individuals and as members of caring communities can make a difference in the world. Look to your own strengths and think about how you can make the world a better place. You don't have to live in America in order to take part in the American conversation. Think about taking your energy and your assets elsewhere. We Americans are wealthy, both materially and experientially. Why not take those assets to a place where you can be your own best and most effective self?

Virginia Lockett is an American physical therapist who lives with her family in Da Nang, Vietnam. She is president and founder of the non-profit organization, Steady Footsteps, Inc. She offers her reflections on life in Vietnam and in America here.

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