Flat is the best word I can use to describe my emotional state before leaving for Vietnam. Training in San Francisco had excited me about the objectives of the program and I was eager to learn more about Agent Orange/Dioxin in Vietnam. But at the same time, the usual buzz of exhilaration and anticipation before a big trip was definitely absent. It’s not that I had very negative feelings about going; it’s just that I was having a hard time summoning some enthusiasm. VIET2010 marks my fourth trip to Vietnam, and though the ambition inherent in both this project and my expectations for it separates this journey from my previous ones, I could not help feeling that returning again would be unremarkable.
Even after stumbling off the plane and walking out the doors at Tan Son Nhat from regulated A/C into oppressive heat and humidity, I felt inert. But beginning with the ride into the city, I started reflecting on how this trip was unique. All my previous visits were with my parents, my mother always leading the charge and leaving me little to worry about in terms of getting by. I was there merely to lend what help I could, and though I contributed to the day to day tasks, I was not concerned with the bigger picture. This trip, on my own, instead represents an opportunity to establish at least a minimal level of independent ability and a beginning to playing a part on a larger, more profound scale.
And if this aspect alone was not enough to set this trip apart for me, then the following day would firmly dispel any notions that this was yet another jaunt to Vietnam. Today, our second day in Saigon, but our first real day of work, we toured, among other sites, Tu Du Hospital and Thi Nghe Orphanage, both home to children afflicted with physical and mental disabilities orphaned because of their circumstances. As the day progressed, I went from a state of being underwhelmed to suddenly feeling mightily overwhelmed. I found the morning very emotionally wearing, with glee in picking up and holding a little girl who undoubtedly gets far less TLC than she deserves and yet heartbreak for the severely lacking conditions that are all that scant resources are able to provide to these children.
On the one hand, I was lost in the enormity of the problems that remained ahead of us. But later, at the end of the day’s debriefing and discussion, as I listened to the group get into animated dialogue about the day’s events, I grew more and more excited in anticipation of the education that lies ahead for us all. The flatness that had dogged me at the beginning of the trip has since faded. I now picture VIET2010 in a totally different light: as a truly exceptional journey rife with opportunity for change and betterment, both for me and for those we’ve come to help. I don’t want to be lured into overconfidence that we can provoke rapid and far-reaching change, but I am highly optimistic that our work is a step in the right direction and will have a positive, lasting impact.