Alumni Spotlight: 2016 Grad Tours Vietnam with Juniata College Choir

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Tyrone class of 2016 grad Sarah Isenberg recently returned to the United States from a singing tour in Vietnam with the Juniata College Concert Choir. Every year, the group takes at least one international trip. This year, Isenberg had the opportunity to explore Vietnam and perform across the country.

The duration of the trip was less than a month, but Isenberg said that it was a life-changing experience.

¨Sometimes it feels like America is the center of the earth, and that’s not true. I also learned that I’m more independent than I thought I was,¨ said Isenberg.

In addition to bringing home a tiny Buddha for good luck, some Vietnamese candy, and Custas (a Vietnamese snack similar to a Twinkie), Isenberg returned to the United States with experiences and relationships to remember for a lifetime.

¨My host family in Saigon had a daughter who was eleven or twelve. She followed us on Instagram and still talks to us. Also, people from our concerts would take our programs home and search our names and follow us on social media,¨ said Isenberg.

People are still really affected by dioxin [agent orange]. I saw so many people on the streets with deformities. Some people had upside down feet or were missing a limb. It was really sad. Also, I saw a woman being seized by the government, so it made me miss the freedoms we have in our country.”

— Sarah Isenberg

Although Isenberg had a wonderful time, she also spoke about the hardships of the country.  The Vietnam War ended over 40 years ago, but in many ways, the country is still feeling its effects.

¨People are still really affected by dioxin [agent orange]. I saw so many people on the streets with deformities. Some people had upside down feet or were missing a limb. It was really sad. Also, I saw a woman being seized by the government, so it made me miss the freedoms we have in our country. But, I only remember ever seeing two homeless people the entire time I was there,¨ Isenberg said.

Initially, Isenberg said that she was nervous but very excited. When she returned, she said that she would go back in a heartbeat.

¨My favorite part of my trip was the food and the culture. The best food was probably the Custas which are kind of similar to a Twinkie, egg coffee, which is pretty much liquid tiramisu, and Banh Mi which is a roast beef and vegetable sandwich. The culture is so interesting too. We slept on the hardwood instead of mattresses, so that was weird. Also, they don’t eat small breakfasts like us, they eat full out meals. One morning, one of my host families made us huge steaks and mashed potatoes,¨ said Isenberg.

During her trip, Isenberg stayed with two host families. One in the city of Hanoi, and one in Saigon.

¨Our host family in Saigon was incredibly hard working. Our host father owned four restaurants and had a job at the airport. Our host mother worked at some of the restaurants. They lived in a small apartment that cost them about $200,000 in American currency, which is crazy because they have an interesting political orientation. As a country, they are a socialist nation, but if you ask the people, they identify as communists. But anyway, the fact that our host family owned that is incredible because it’s not common in communist government,¨ said Isenberg.

When comparing America and Vietnam, a notable topic of difference was the currency. ¨One dollar in America is the equivalent to 22,711 dong, which is the currency of Vietnam. Once, I pulled out two hundred bucks at the ATM and it was 4,542,200 dong. I felt so cool taking 4.5 million of anything out of the bank, even though it was only a few hundred bucks,¨ said Isenberg.

Before going to a foreign country, one could only form an idea of what to expect. Isenberg talked a little bit about what surprised her the most and defied her expectations.

Most of the people had never seen someone with blonde hair, green eyes, or curly hair. People would come up to me and ask to touch me or have my autograph because they had never seen someone that looked like me. ”

— Sarah Isenberg

¨One big difference was probably how cheap everything is. You could buy a bottle of water for the equivalent to less than fifty cents. Another thing that surprised me was how fluent the people are in English. The kids are taught it in school. It really surprised me that they don’t have toilet paper. The other big thing was the fact that I felt like a zoo animal. Most of the people had never seen someone with blonde hair, green eyes, or curly hair. People would come up to me and ask to touch me or have my autograph because they had never seen someone that looked like me. It wasn’t in a weird way either. They really liked how pale I am. I must’ve signed my autograph at least seventy times at one concert.¨

Isenberg wasn’t the only member of her choir group that the people were fascinated by.

¨One of my friends is 6 foot 4, with long curly hair that hangs in ringlets. At one of our concerts, all of these Vietnamese children came up to him and were touching his hair. One shy little boy was staring at him for a while, and he eventually asked, So, are you a ladyboy? So that was really adorable and funny.¨

Looking ahead, Isenberg says that next year’s trip will most likely be to Morocco, and she can’t wait to broaden her horizons by traveling the world.

“I would like to thank Sean Dau for organizing the entire trip, Dr. Russ Shelley for being ever so dedicated to his choir and the art of choral music, my peers in Juniata Concert Choir for being so hardworking, and Mrs. Laura Harris for helping me to find a love for music within myself. I wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for her,” said Isenberg.

 

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