This series of stories were written by Linh Pham, a member of the Learning Village, posted first on his personal blog Story Weaver. Please visit this link for bilingual English - Vietnamese post on his page.
Last month I participated in a training called the Learning Village. For better or worse, the training took place in the midst of a pandemic. Here is my account of what happened.
Day 0 - March 14, 2020
I sat at the boarding gate waiting for my flight to Da Nang. The airport was next to empty. The few people who waited with me all had their masks on, staring blankly at their phones. The smell of disinfectant wafted in the air. I contemplated, for the hundredth time, my decision to be here.
I was there on the day when my friend Narayan came out of the bathroom of Pizza 4’P and announced that he would call for the first Learning Village in Asia. The idea was that at this Village, practitioners of the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter would gather to share their experience and learn together. That call was put out in 2018 and it took more than one year to organize and invite people to the Village. By January 2020, two months before the Village started, there were almost 90 registrations, as supposed to the initial estimation of 30 people. At this point Narayan and others in the calling team (Steve, Mel, and Trang) – who had been doing most of the work so far – invited the community to a Zoom call to start a self-organizing process. The participants were invited to join different teams (triangles) that would take care of different domains of work for the Village such as logistics, communications, economy, etc. The responsibility to make the Village happen had been transferred from the calling team to the rest of the community.
At that moment we did not know just how critical and timely that transition was. On January 11, 2020 – one day after the Zoom call – China announced its first death from Covid-19. The virus spread globally and as the number of cases rose, the Village’s registrations dropped. At some point the question emerged among the calling team: should we ‘pull-the-plug’ of the Village? But it was wasn’t their decision anymore. The Village was now held by the community. And each person had to decide for themselves whether to come or not.
The night of March 6, Hanoi announced its first Covid-19 patient. The virus that was so far away now showed up just two kilometers from my doorsteps. The government quickly quarantined the street where the patient lives. On social media the news spread like wild fire, igniting mass hysteria. The next day, in what I naively thought to be a normal grocery run, I was swept along the panic-stricken crowd in their hoarding frenzy. Fear settled in me. I thought that if I was in the Village and something went wrong at home, I would be devastated for not being there with my parents. With the Village only six days away, I decided to stay home.
On March 11, I had to say goodbye to my wife, who was still determined to go to the Village. I was sad to see her go, but I was in peace with my decision. Or so I thought. Once she arrived, my wife sent me picture of the Village’s location. “Stars! And beach! And air!” she said, “you gotta be here!!!” At the same time, my mom also encouraged me to go. She said she believed things wouldn’t be so bad here even if they lock down the street, and that my decision was made in the time of panic but now things were settling down. “Besides, it is only one flight away,” my mom said. “If anything happens you can still get home easily.”
And thus my decision changed again. I came to the airport one day before the Village started, uncertain if I had made the right choice or not.
Day 1 - March 15, 2020
Having arrived late the night before, it was only in the morning that I could truly appreciate the beauty of the venue. We were at Tam Thanh Natural Beach Resort, about 70 km from Da Nang. The people of the resort were friendly and helpful. There was a family of dogs that spent most of the time leisurely laying in the sun. It was not a place of great luxury, but a place that felt homey and honest. And then there was the beach.
That morning my wife and I went to the beach at around 7 am. There was almost nobody around, just us, the sand, the sea, and the sky. The sun brilliantly lit half of the sky, the other half was still shrouded in dark cloud, seemingly not ready for the day yet. It had been a long time since I could feel the sun on my skin like that. “I would be so tanned when I’m back,” I thought to myself. In that open space, the virus again felt so far away.
At 10:30 am the Villagers gathered at the pavilion for the opening circle. We sat around a beautiful centerpiece that looked like a mini zen garden. Out of all the registrations, only 30 could make it here. There were ten nationalities around the circle: Vietnam, Australia, America, Brazil, Japan, England, India, Romania, France, and Austria. I saw strange faces mixed in with those that I know and love.
We spent most of the day in a check in – a practice that aims to help people be present and make space for every voices to be heard. In that check in we took turn to answer one question: “What has guided you here?” No matter where we came from, we all took lot of risks to come to the Village, the risk of traveling, the risk of being in in close contact with one another. Some people took a risk of not being able to get home afterward. That check in question invited us to share our decision process, not to explain but for the sake of acknowledgement and connection.
Some people say they came here to support their friends. Some wanted to be in community, to feel again the sense of belonging and support. And some, including me, still did not understand fully why they had made that choice. “Something I cannot see yet calls me to be here with you”, Corina said. “I am like a learning turtle, travelling around the world with my backpack. I choose to stop looking for reasons now, but rather be present and reflect on the experience after it had happened. ”
In that check in more than one people said it was love that guided them here. If it was in any other setting, I would cringe hearing that. But here for some reason those words felt true for me, too. Perhaps it was the sincerity that accompanied those words. Perhaps because before the check in there was an activity that made me felt connected to something bigger than me, bigger than all of us. Earlier we were invited to go to the beach and stand in the sea. After the walk in the hot sand, the cold water was refreshing. Every time the wave crashed in it pulled away a bit of sand under my feet. And every time I sank a bit deeper, a bit closer to the Earth. As I stood there looking out to the unknown, I heard from Jane a tune mixed in the wind:
“Mother, I feel you under my feet,
Mother, I hear your heartbeats.”