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First Steps

First Steps

The first week in Vietnam has finally ended and the emotions and feelings that I had initially started with have changed and evolved as the week progressed. The first morning I awoke in Vietnam, I was eager to start our journey. As a Vietnamese growing up in the United States, I always felt a strong nationalism, not towards the country that I was raised in – the U.S.— but the country I was born in, Vietnam. I started the journey with high expectations, thinking to myself throughout the orientation process, that “this was finally my chance to start helping Vietnam” something I had always told myself I wanted to do. Knowing that it was the beginning of our journey, half aware of what really awaited us, I was anxious. At the same time however, there was a sense of joy – finally being able to contribute to a larger cause. The latter however, quickly disappeared as the first and second day came and went.

Our tour began at a ward in a local hospital that housed and cared for children with disabilities. These children were housed in a floor consisting of only four or five rooms. As we walked in, these kids stared at us with faces of forlorn and need. Many were just lying in beds doing nothing but starting off at the wall, while the others that were mobile could only sit and occasionally walk around. As I watched the kids looking back at us helplessly I felt uneasy. I found myself wanting to turn away. I had initially had romanticized notions of myself being some sort of globetrotting reporter on a mission to somehow change the dire situations in Vietnam. Yet at this moment all those preconceived notions disappeared as I stood in front of the children, unable to pick up my camera. At that moment, all I could think to do was play with the kids who seemed to slowly break out of the cage at the sight of a few new friends. As I continued to laugh and play with the kids, I couldn’t help but slowly feel a sense of pity towards these children. They were all cared for by admirable and amazing people but that was where their interactions stopped. The children were just left in their rooms to go on day by day, with the only objective to live on. Sitting on the floor with the kids, I saw a larger boy sitting in the corner playing with a phone. To me, he looked no more than 11, but later I would soon realize that he was actually 17. His name was HUY, and he came over by me with his phone and handed it to me. Written on the phone was a text that read ‘What is your name’. I had thought he had stumbled upon one of those text templates built into each phone and replied in Vietnamese and even in English, quite sure that he wouldn’t be able to understand me. So I gave the phone back and again he went on typing in letters. When he handed it back, there was another phrase written, ‘How old are you?’ unable to understand I typed back my message and continued to converse through text. I was unable to comprehend because at that point I had already made the assumption he couldn’t speak, let alone type English. It was MY ignorance that blinded me towards the fact that HUY not only could converse but he could do it in English, a foreign language to him. So it was at this moment that I realized that I had been wrong since the moment I stepped into the hospital ward. These children did not need my pity, and for me to give it to them was a slap in the face. I should have showed them respect just like I would have anyone else and shouldn’t have doubted them. Was it such a surprise that HUY could converse in English? No. It was a surprise that I assumed that he couldn’t. This first visit left me doubting myself and my ability to see this project to its final objective.

The second site we visited was an orphanage called Thi Nghe. Here the complex was larger but the atmosphere and conditions seemed even darker than that of the hospital ward. Here children lied in beds and in rooms on the floor unable to move or speak. Those with severest disabilities could only cry and scream. When I looked at the kids at Thi Nghe and asked about their futures, the director just smiled. She said Thi Nghe’s objective was only to help sustain and keep these kids alive. For them there didn’t seem to be any hope.

The next few days, we found ourselves traveling to several vocational complexes that catered to peoples with disabilities, such as the DRC, Go Vap Orphanage and Hoc Mon Emplyment center. These centers took in as many kids as they could and helped them learn skills so that they can find jobs and sustain themselves. Hoc Mon Employment, I saw the kids and adults alike sitting in their respective rooms and working on their skills. I thought for the first time after the first couple of days that maybe there was hope in providing futures in Vietnam for peoples with disabilities. My hope however, was set back once again as we asked the director if the kids and adults go on to find jobs. Her response was ‘it was unlikely’. Most would leave but they would leave with a better sense of empowerment and understanding. I began to sympathize for these kids, who all smiled as they worked. They made the best of their situation and never felt helpless. They were taking control over their own lives.

From the end of this week, I’ve noticed that peoples with disabilities are cast off and marginalized. I myself have been guilty of doing this. At the beginning of the week I was afraid of becoming desensitized to the situations around me. I soon realized however that these peoples were making do with what they had and trying to craft a life of their own based on the resources provided to them. So how did I fit into the equation? To me, I thought if these people were strong enough to take control of their own lives, that I myself was strong enough to help them. The first week had little to do with Agent Orange, but it had a lot to do with being Vietnamese, and wanting to help bridge the gap between Vietnamese by addressing the problems that faced Vietnam. When I look back at this first week, I’ll realize that my first steps to finally taking steps to address problems in Vietnam began at Thi Nghe, and at Go Vap, and the rest of these sites.

I hope I’ll be able to take these experiences to aid myself further down this trip.


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