Picture a communist country where family members never hug each other, children start school when they are one year old, and cockroaches are food. This is Vietnam, where Vaan Huynh, a senior at Providence, lived until she was 16 years old when she came to the U.S. as an exchange student.
Huynh was born in My Tho City in Southern Vietnam on February 23, 1991 to Huy Huynh and her mother. Her parents named her Vaan Kahn which in Vietnamese means “happy cloud.”
Her father is a math teacher at Tien Giang University and her mother is a banker. Huynh also has a younger sister who is currently 17 years old, living in My Tho City with her parents.
This happy cloud began attending school when she was one and half years old, going to a sort of Vietnamese super-preschool. In second grade, Huynh’s life changed when a group of coaches from Tin Zieng sports village came to her elementary school looking for new players.
Huynh’s father had always encouraged her to play sports, so Huynh tried out and made the ping pong team.
From then on, Huynh’s life revolved around ping pong. She went to school during the day then rigorously trained at the Tin Zieng sports village at night. She trained her first year and began competing her second year. By her fourth year, Huynh won a national championship award for her age level.
After winning this competition, the sports village asked Huynh’s parents if they could “buy her.” This meant that her parents signed a contract saying that Huynh would live at the sports village under the authority of her coaches, compete and travel with the team, and the government would give her parents money in exchange.
Living at the sports village with no parental guidance, she got involved with brawls, drinking, and other negative influences. Huynh compares life in the village to the military; the athletes trained constantly, the culture had a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, she had no close relationships, and she was constantly ordered around by her coaches, and discouraged from expressing her emotions or opinions.
Huynh’s life continued this way until her first year of high school when her father found an exchange program with the U.S. government for her to go to America for a year. Huynh’s father had always wanted his children to go to the U.S. because of the corruption he had experienced in communist Vietnam. Her parents are also very keen on having Huynh succeed in life.
Huynh returned from a Ping Pong tour, took an English proficiency test, and within five days flew to Allendale, Michigan to live with Harold and Marge Punter, parents of Bryan Punter, a senior at Providence.
For her first semester in Michigan, Huynh attended a public school and she was very reclusive, hardly coming out of her room except to eat. Her English was very poor at the time, and Huynh admits to plagiarizing many of her high school essays because she did not know how to write in English.
Bryan Punter recalls the immense cultural differences between his family and Huynh that sometimes caused strife or confusion. One time at the Punter’s URC church, Huynh unscrewed and took apart the church’s grandfather clock, which resulted in some angry people. At the time, Huynh had no understanding of private property, coming from a communal society.
Religious differences were also sometimes problematic. She had been raised as an atheist, and her first Sunday with the Punters in America was the first time she had ever seen or heard of the Bible or Christianity. In church, Huynh found sermons very hard to understand, with her limited knowledge of English and Christian doctrine.
As her year in America came to an end, Huynh asked the Punters if she could stay with them for another year. At first they were hesitant because of cultural and religious conflicts between them. However, as Huynh showed more interest in Christianity (she began attending children’s Sunday school and paying attention in church) they changed their minds.
Byran Punter said that he has always enjoyed Huynh’s inquisitive nature, and he believes this was a factor that led her to investigate and eventually believe Christianity.
Her senior year, Huynh attended Zion Christian School. Here she learned more about Christianity.
Huynh does not remember when she began believing in Christianity. For a while, she thought it was all made up, but gradually she began to believe and trust in Christ. At the end of her senior year of high school, she gave her profession of faith at the Punter’s church.
After graduating high school, in spring 2009, Vaan decided to continue her education in the U.S. and attend Providence. She found out about Providence through her high school, and Bryan Punter, her host family brother, also came to Providence the same year. Huynh wanted to go to Providence to learn more about Christianity.
Karolina Beveridge, a friend of Huynh’s since their freshman year at Providence, describes her relationship with Vaan, “When I first met her, she was so social and crazy that I did not think we would be friends… The first time we bonded was when we watched a Korean movie in the dorm hall and fell asleep in the hall all night.”
Now Huynh and Beveridge are close friends. “She is easy to talk to and a loyal friend. I love the ridiculous things she says. I love that she always has coffee no matter what hour of the day or night. I love that she loves math and she has helped me understand why she finds it beautiful. I love that she truly seeks to know things and people.”
At Providence, Beveridge has seen growth in Huynh. “She has calmed down a lot. She is not afraid to work through difficult issues, understanding why she believes what she does.” Beveridge also says that Huynh has become a better writer. So, she no longer plagiarizes like she did in high school.
Bryan Punter states that while Huynh is still very inquisitive, she has become more humble and she listens to people more.
Huynh’s love for math has spurred her on to apply for graduate school. She recently took the GRE and has filled out many applications for grad programs in mathematics. She hopes to begin grad school next fall semester.