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America’s soft power is strong

Traveling on a survey trip in the countryside is rewarding in many ways. When you live in a big city, it’s easy to forget that most people in the country don’t enjoy a high standard of living.

Yesterday I had two heartwarming interactions with Vietnamese people. The first was in a very small town in the Mekong Delta. We got a little lost, and were trying to figure out what to do. While we were standing on the side of the road, a young man walked up to me and struck up a conversation in English.

As a matter of principle, I like to engage with people, especially with students. You never know who kids will grow up to be. I’d love to be the American that a future leader remembers talking to, way back when. It’s also good for America when people have a favorable impression of us.

Anyway, this young man said he was 16, and asked where I was from. When I told him I was from America, his face lit up. He was clearly delighted to be talking with an American. His English wasn’t very good, but we managed a brief conversation. I admired his courage to approach a foreigner and try using a language that he was just starting to learn. I don’t think I am that brave.

The other interaction happened later that night, in town. We were on he street, when a small child, about 3 years old, walked by with his mom. With the encouragement of his mother, he smiled, waved, and called out “Hello!” to me. He didn’t speak any English, but he wasn’t self-conscious or shy, he trotted over to me and gave me a high-five.

I’ve had interactions like that in other countries. But Americans seem to enjoy especially high favorability among the Vietnamese people, even (or maybe especially) in rural parts of the country. In the eyes of many people here, America never wasn’t “great.”

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