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Every Single Day

Every Single Day

This past week our team visited a number of agencies in Sài Gòn, Biên Hoà, and Cần Thơ.  These various agencies, such as hospital wards, orphanages, shelters, and economic development programs, focus on addressing the impact of Agent Orange/Dioxin and/or with individuals living with disabilities.  Our first visit was to a public hospital here in Sài Gòn, which houses a special facility to care for children living with disabilities.  When I arrived at the hospital, I saw hundreds, probably even in the thousands, of people who brought their own mats to sit on and wait in the sweltering heat and humidity until their numbers got called.

When I entered the ward designated for children living with disabilities, I felt quite uncomfortable even as the other fellows warmly embraced the children there, either by picking them up for a piggyback ride or peppering them with kisses.  I saw a child, whose head was about twice as big as my own head, confined to a bed.  I saw babies on cold metal beds at the same time I felt the heat and humidity in the rooms where the other children live, play, and laugh.  Yet, I also saw skillful and caring nurses.  I heard crisp and ringing laughter.  But I was reluctant to embrace these children as the other fellows had.  I felt uneasy because it seemed inherently exploitative for us to come in and out of these children’s lives in a matter of less than an hour.   Also, I questioned, how are we contributing to more sustainable change?  Are we addressing systemic issues or challenging the system of healthcare and social services delivery in Vietnam by visiting children in hospital wards and orphanages?

The idea of visiting an orphanage and hospital wards where these children reside because their parents either do not want them or have the ability to care for them, seems to me to reinforce the idea of abandonment.  I walked away from many of these visits with immense ambivalence.  On the one hand, the idea of coming in and out of these children’s lives was transient and unsettling.  These children are not specimens and I did not want these visits to be a destination for charity and tourism.  On the other hand, I also recognize that being able to bear witness to these children’s experiences and to see the conditions in which they live and thrive was invaluable and this insight is something that books will never be able to teach us.

After a group debriefing session, I reflected more about my initial qualms and dug deeper about my reservations.  Although the concerns I had raised were what I believed in, I have come to terms with the fact that my uneasiness to embrace these children both physically and emotionally stemmed deeply from other personal issues that I need to work out myself; thus, the visits this week helped me confront these issues that I’ve always wanted to address, but didn’t have neither the challenge nor the courage to do so.  I realize that I was using my general sense of distrust and my hesitance to embrace fully and completely to mask areas that I need to personally develop.  I want to challenge myself to be open to being vulnerable, and my time in Vietnam thus far has helped me confront that every single day.

Thus, on Thursday I elected to go to an optional site visit to an orphanage for children who are HIV-positive.  Immediately when the eight of us walked into the playroom, about four to five children grabbed each of us in every direction.  A timid little boy wanted to get my attention, so he came back to me every few minutes with a water bottle.  I opened the water bottle for him to drink and then closed the cap.  I cannot be certain about how thirsty he was, but in the span of 30 minutes he probably asked me to open that same water bottle for him at least 15 times.   In another anecdote, an exuberant eight-year-old girl shared with me that she was a great storyteller and began telling me a story in a far far away place about a rabbit family.   Then, she told me about a tiger family, and then a story about a monkey family.  At the same time that these stories were unfolding and overlapping each other, another child slipped effortlessly into my lap, while another one tugged gently at my right hand.

As we departed this orphanage, I was physically exhausted yet emotionally renewed.  When I framed these kinds of visits in a voyeuristic and exploitative way, I regretfully neglected the fact that these children also changed ME.  In unpacking the earlier vignettes, I wonder, how often do these children get touched and held?  Who and what gets to dictate how much love and compassion are distributed?  How long and how deeply will I hold these memories with me?  Given that, while it is important to name issues and to acknowledge inequity in power, in order for me to fully engage in critical conversations and action, my very own humanity cannot be divorced from my analysis.

This visit, along with the other site visits and amazing people I’ve interacted with this week, highlighted that indeed, there are different power dynamics one must consider in entering and exiting new spaces, but at the crux of social change and transformative work are shared values of compassion and community.  Outside of discussing theories and analyzing obscure concepts, how can I continue to cultivate compassion and to grow my humanity?   How can I continue to challenge myself personally?  How can I utilize that subsequent growth to contribute to the work that I engage others and myself in?  I do not think there is a linear path in answering these questions, but if the first two weeks are indicative in any way, I can say that these questions point to a process in which my time here in Vietnam will slowly and thoughtfully reveal.

–Van T. Nguyen


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