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As a child, Danielle Gerhard loved flipping through National Geographic magazines and imagining herself in the pictures.
"I have always been fascinated with other cultures," said Gerhard, a senior in psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Gerhard, of Memphis, turned her imagination into reality this spring when she went to Vietnam and Cambodia to study the recent economic, political, and cultural history of those countries.
From May 15 to 29, her sociology class traveled to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap. They visited the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh, the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City, and the ruins at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.
Gerhard noticed the clash of nature and urban living in Vietnam and Cambodia.
"Both countries are beautiful with lush vegetation, but due to such rapid economic growth over the past twenty years or so, they are beginning to experience the negative effects of development," Gerhard said.
One such development is Vietnam's main form of transportation: motorbikes. With about one million motorbikes in Hanoi alone, Gerhard said crossing the street was terrifying. Pedestrians do not have the right-of-way and traffic laws aren't taken too seriously. She said she will never complain about traffic in America again.
At night, without their translator, Gerhard and her friends found it very difficult to communicate with people. She said she tried to pick up some phrases, but with Vietnamese being a tonal language, she found it very difficult to properly pronounce the words.
"There was a lot of pointing and hand gestures used on both parts to try and communicate," Gerhard said.
Having seen and experienced the cultural differences between Southeast Asia and America, Gerhard said she learned there is no normal or right way to do something.
"It is an amazing experience to be taken out of your comfort zone and realize how your way of thinking about things has been a bit parochial," Gerhard said.
Gerhard received scholarships from the Chancellor's Honors Program and the Center for International Education.