I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe


On a planet where there are literally more cell phones than people, it's unthinkable that there are still parts of the world that regard electricity as magic. But those isolated tribes still exist, and we spoke to a member of one of them. Rich was a Montagnard tribesman from the highlands of Vietnam. Before coming to America at the age of 14, Rich had lived most of his life eating monkeys and living without power or antibiotics.

Here's what he told us:

Yes, Some People Are Still Living a Tribal Lifestyle

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
Eye Ubiquitous / Contributor

Have you seen Apocalypse Now? Do you remember that part near the end of the film where Martin Sheen winds up at Colonel Kurtz's isolated jungle fortress, and it's filled with dudes like this:

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
United Artists

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
United Artists

Nothing goes together like boating and whiteface.

That's me! The movie version of me, at least -- I grew up as one of the Vietnamese tribesmen it's depicting, the Montagnards. We didn't hunt Communist soldiers on behalf of an aging Marlon Brando, but we did hunt just about everything else we could get our hands on, endangered species and otherwise. We were hunter-gatherers, and that's how I lived until I got out of there around age 14. I don't know my exact age because we didn't keep track of or celebrate birthdays.

We didn't even use currency -- we just traded rice for salt, fish, etc. My grandmother made everything from scratch, even our clothes. We lived off of rice, beans, wild fruits, and berries. For protein, we'd pretty much eat all types of insects and animals, including the types of animals the World Wildlife Fund would spear us for eating, like elephants and monkeys (which were delicious). Most of those monkeys were assholes, by the way -- you see monkeys everywhere in the jungle, and they're furry little thieves. I spent a lot of my childhood as a living scarecrow, waiting for them to get close to our food storage and then flipping out and banging on stumps to make them run away.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
werapat apirojananan/iStock/Getty

Hello, my old nemesis.

I grew up hunting with a slingshot. I mostly hunted for smaller animals like lizards, and later, I learned how to use a bow and arrow for birds. I came close to bagging a deer once. And by "close," I mean I was sitting in the tree right above it, and my grandma shouted for me to jump on top of it. I was like, "Are you crazy? I'll fall and break my neck." Did your grandma ever tell you to leap down onto the back of a wild animal so you could stab it to death?

I didn't know about electricity until I started to get older, and then I thought it was just magic. When I was a little kid, we'd just use lanterns or build fires. As time went on, modernity started creeping in, but I didn't see electricity for the first time until I was already well past the age where some kids own their own smartphones. Some villages near us had built rudimentary hydroelectric motors (they were mostly used just for lights; no one was plugging in sound systems or margarita machines). Everyone was so amazed -- you can't even begin to imagine seeing artificial light for the first time when you've been squinting around campfires for years. It's light you can't just blow out. That's so fucking incredible, I'm still not used to it.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
Peshkova/iStock/Getty Images

Are you guys seeing this shit?

And keep in mind, we were far from the most isolated tribe out there. There is a tribe called "h're", which lives in a very secluded village in the highlands. They'd never seen so much as a car. One day, an interpreter and some foreigners came to visit in a jeep, and, awed by the sight, the villagers rushed toward this alien thing to greet it. They didn't know it was something people had built. The villagers offered it food, water, and conversation -- literally speaking to the car like it was some sort of god or intelligent being.

Even Living Off the Grid, You Still Make Enemies

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
Leanne Lee / AFP / Getty

Already, some of you are feeling at least a little bit of longing for a simple life with no deadlines, cubicles, or credit card debt. After all, weren't we living Tyler Durden's dream in Fight Club? Back to the basics, living off the land, breathing the fresh air? But the reality is that even without technology, people are still people, and governments are still governments. This brings me to the reason I had to risk my life to get the hell out of there.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
Eye Ubiquitous / Getty

The power imbalance should be fairly obvious.

Going back to Apocalypse Now for a moment, the Montagnards did in fact side with the Americans during the Vietnam War. That wound up not being the best decision we could have made. When the Americans pulled out, the war never stopped for us. The new government swept in and immediately went about taking our land.

We, meanwhile, lived outside the law. Some of the tribesmen still had the guns American special operations forces had given them during the war. And every now and then, they'd take those guns, go out into the wild, and kill an elephant. The skin, tusks, and feet we'd sell -- they're extremely valuable for traditional medicine (aka: doesn't-work medicine) in a lot of Southeast Asia. The meat came back to the tribe (it wasn't great -- I remember it being incredibly tough, but a little sweet. Almost like a jerky).

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
lara_zanarini/iStock/Getty Images

Apparently, elephants can forget ... to have flavor.

So we did some illegal poaching, and we had some illegal guns, but even if we'd given all those up, we still would've had our very, very illegal Bibles. Like many Montagnards, we were Christians, and the Vietnamese government isn't a big fan of that. They allege that our religious services are really just cover for the Montagnard independence movement. I remember digging holes in the ground, filling them with Bibles, then covering them with dirt and leaves. That's just how we lived -- covering our tracks became a habit for us. You don't need a sign telling you to "leave no trace" when that trace might wind up putting you in front of a firing squad.

Meanwhile, we continued to lead a nonviolent resistance movement. I was born into a very political family -- my uncle was a preacher in the village, and my aunt led a women's group. They both had a lot of connections, especially from back during the war. We ran an underground railroad for anti-communist activists, although most of us hadn't seen a "railroad," so maybe that's not the best analogy. In 2001, there was a demonstration in the city, and we helped hide the organizers away so that the government couldn't track them down.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
Omar Havana/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Not pictured: us, because we were smart.

Eventually this all caught up with my family. The police started regularly coming by and accusing us of being pro-American, later stationing police officers in our homes (we had to feed them, adding insult to injury). It was no longer safe -- whenever we'd go buy food at a market or a farm, we'd have to fill out paperwork and tell them where and how long we were going to be gone.

My family decided those of us young enough to make a new start somewhere else had to flee.

Getting Out Can Get You Killed

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
Yvan Cohen / Getty

So, one day we packed up in disguises and headed out. I didn't let any of my friends know about our escape. It would be risking their lives, too.

We went to a farm, where some of the activists we'd smuggled out were staying. And from there, we followed someone who knew his way around the jungle. We just walked deep into the jungle, through village after village. My strongest memories are of leeches -- impossible numbers of leeches -- and soldiers chasing us. We could see them moving through the jungle by daylight. We'd have to relocate every five or 10 minutes. You couldn't start fires; we just ate raw ramen and raw rice.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
angorius/iStock/Getty Images

Yes, you can eat this, and no, you shouldn't.

We made shoes out of leaves and banana husks. Those were useful, because in the jungle you never knew what you were going to walk into. Again, I feel the need to add that leeches are just ... assholes. And there were thousands of mosquitoes. I actually came down with malaria sometime after we entered Cambodia. They gave me tons and tons of shots to make sure it didn't spread. I still can't donate blood.

Some of us didn't make it, but some of us did. Once we reached Cambodia, the U.N. rescued us. I remember big, white SUVs with the U.N. flag on the sides, coming through the mud and the rain to get us. Since there wasn't room for all of us in the SUVs, the U.N. workers walked with us from the jungle to the nearest refugee camp -- three solid days of walking. Oh, you haven't walked for three days straight, breaking only to pass out? Don't worry, I'll summarize it: it's shitty.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images

But at least I'll never take couches for granted.

And once we were out, we found ...

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe

The Modern World Is Insane

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
silverjohn/iStock/Getty Images

They flew us out of the jungle on a plane. Freaking planes, you guys. Even today, they're basically space ships to me. I don't find them any less awe-inspiring. I remember at the hotel in California, right after landing, I went into the bathroom to take a shower. I didn't know there was a switch between hot and cold water -- just hot water came out, and it blew my mind. Seriously, what the hell you guys? Hot water just happening!? Everything was foreign -- the buildings, the people, the cars, the fact that you can flush the toilet. My first time in an American grocery story was ... special. Cheetos, pizza, fast food ... it was like, "Wow, so this is where you go find all the food." It's all in packaging, and some of it is in refrigerators. I felt like I was in heaven.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
paulprescott72/iStock/Getty Images

It was a while before I learned that loving the Cheetos aisle too much was a very fast road to heaven.

Oh, sure, I miss the food I grew up on. The ingredients and the way we made food isn't the same. You could never replicate it here -- people who made food put a lot of thought into it. I definitely don't find anymore insects in my diet. I might eat silkworms, but eating that kind of stuff isn't a necessity here. Back home, you needed all the protein you could get. Here you can take special pills to help you poop your excess protein out.

Oh, and there's music here. When I was a teen in Vietnam, our neighbors had a radio and people from the village played their own instruments, but other than that, I have very little early memories of music. In America, the first band I fell in love with was the Backstreet Boys. I don't know why, but I like them. It's so upbeat and fast, the way it makes your body feel is just ... good. And that sense of movement -- wow! For some reason, those guitars, that bass, drummers ... growing up, I'd had no idea anything could make sounds like that. And music in America can be so loud! You just turn the volume up as much as you want.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
paulprescott72/iStock/Getty Images

I hear some knobs go all the way up to 11.

In time, I learned about other bands, and then, of course, I discovered the Internet. The music here is a lot like the food -- you can just gorge endlessly. I miss the way we ate at home sometimes, but I'll never miss life without music. Music is a way to let out all kind of problems. It frees your mind from the world and how terrible people can be to each other.

And in case you're wondering ...

Yes, Integrating Into the Modern World is Hard

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
Hoang Dinh Nam / Getty

I felt incredibly lonely during my first years in America, simply because people couldn't relate to me, and I couldn't relate to them.

"Where did you used to live?" my classmates would ask.

"In a jungle. We killed wildlife, like monkeys and snakes, for food. We ran from tigers."

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
photointrigue/iStock/Getty Images

There's very little else you can do with tigers.

"Did you sleep with monkeys?" they'd ask, being teenagers.

"No," I said, not getting the joke. "We used to have a monkey as a pet, but we didn't sleep with him."

I've eaten elephants and all sorts of things people don't think of as "food". If it crawls or flies in Vietnam, I've probably tasted it. Do you know how few teenagers in your country have eaten wild boar, let alone caught a baby with their bare hands? And that's one of my most accessible childhood experiences for American teens, because the South exists.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
twildlife/iStock/Getty Images

Guns? Bush league boar hunting, guys.

All of my experiences are so different; I didn't feel that I could relate to my age group here -- we had no frame of reference for each other. I needed to find people from much older generations before I could get some mutual understanding from someone who also grew up in a pre-Internet world. But it's still not the same. Gut-wrenching poverty has some similarities across time and space, but growing up in the Great Depression isn't the same as living in the wild.

That's why I will forever live in two worlds. I can't deny where I come from, and it doesn't matter how far I come or where I'm at. This country will always seem a little like Back to the Future. Oh, and speaking of movies? I just finished Star Wars for the first time, and it's awesome. I love "space" movies, and I identify a bit with Luke. That's kind of how I got here, after all: a big machine that flies on the sky picked me up and dropped me off. Oh, and Guardians of the Galaxy -- that's my new favorite space movie.

I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe
1971yes/iStock/Getty Images, Marvel Studios

Above: two equally impressive things.

I feel like I can identify with it more than most people ought to. Star-Lord lost his mother; and I lost mine when I was 3 years old. His dad's a dick, and I didn't think highly of my dad after he remarried. Star-Lord got picked up in some incomprehensible ship and flown far away from everything he knew, and the same exact thing happened to me. I assume my talking tree friend will be coming in the mail any day now.

It's been 14 years since Rich last saw Vietnam or his family. If you'd like to help him travel back and visit them, you can donate to his GoFundMe page.

For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Ways My Modern Country Turned Into a Dystopia Overnight Viral. And then check out The 24 Creepiest Discoveries People Just Stumbled Into.

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