by Annie Tran:
Courtesy of Stephanie James & Cecilie Weischer
Upon my first arrival to the Baby Orphanage in Tam Ky, Vietnam, I was presented with the sight of dozens of huge beautiful smiles, the kind of smiles that bare those shining chompers and a peek at a few pinkish gums because you’re just that excited to see something. And I suppose we were quite the sight to see, us 14 foreign kids who all spoke in different kinds of English. We teenagers with nary a clue what to do, smiled just as enthusiastically back at them. We were not only overjoyed to be welcomed as such, but it was a general feeling of relief to know that our mission as foreign ambassadors of the English language would be taken with open arms.
Earlier this year, in the midst of one of those overly stressed moments that tend to happen several times over one’s junior year, I was suddenly consumed by a wanderlust coupled with a determination to go out into the world and make an impact somewhere. Because of this, I decided to apply for the Global Volunteer Network Vietnam Youth Tour, not really knowing what I was searching for. The organization is based out of New Zealand and serves to help communities in need all over the world. Initially, I was worried that this organization was some type of money grabbing scam because it seemed like such a bizarre paradox, paying hundreds of dollars (not including air fare) to help others. However, I found out that $200 of the $1024 program fee was used on the multiple establishments dedicated to helping children in the area, and we were able to see firsthand how our money was used to help the children of the community.
Over the course of the ten day tour, we visited three places regularly: the Baby Orphanage, the Tam Thanh Fishing Village School, as well as a mental disability facility called Phu Ninh Orphanage. It was a joy to visit each establishment because they all held different opportunities for us, whilst still maintaining the common goal of helping teach English. At these moments, I have to admit that my terrible Vietnamese did come in handy when I needed to translate phrases or communicate a need since many of the people we met only knew a limited amount of English.
At these times though, I often questioned if the goal of this trip was somewhat misguided because it didn’t seem all that sustainable to just sit and attempt to teach a few words of English. Many of them forgot the phrases that we tried so hard to instill in them. In time, we came to understand that the ability to speak English was one of the few ways that could potentially break the poverty cycle that pertained to many of these impoverished children. Heck, some of them had never even seen outside the border of their own hometown. Their world consisted of rundown shacks with rusty tin roofs and lush postcard-worthy scenery of rice paddies and water buffalo.
As part of the program, our group took the children in the fishing village outside of their little town to a “bigger” city and had us all sit down at a restaurant. Their innocent perspectives were so different from ours. For instance, to us, 75 cent phô seemed like we hit the jackpot of cheap good food, but to them, it felt like they were being treated to an expensive meal for what they saw as a typical everyday bowl.
One of the first scenes of true and dire poverty of the developing world’s country nature was presented to me soon after my arrival. The Baby Room of the Baby Orphanage buzzed with not just the sounds of the mothers of the orphanage, but it was also abuzz with the sound of flies and mosquitoes. In the middle of the room, there was a huge foam mat reeking of leftover puke and unchanged nappies, with six babies lying in the middle of it all. My American senses were scandalized by these low health standards, but in reality it was really the best that the mothers could make of the situation, because there were too few of them to have a hand in everything. They were overworked and underpaid trying to keep an orphanage with about 50 children afloat and functioning. In fact, over the duration of the trip, four new children and one baby had either been dropped off on the porch by parents or were newly orphaned.
In an attempt to remedy situations like this, some of the volunteers doled out their own money from previous fundraising or even from their own pockets to try to help the orphanage. For instance, two Irish teenagers used a $200 donation to buy three cribs with mosquito netting for the babies. A few of us had also pooled money together to go out and buy paint to make a brighter and generally happier environment for the children. I bought a set of toys for the children, but when I tried to distribute the toys among the little ones, it was as if the concept of sharing was nonexistent. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all sweet kids, but common squabbles would happen between some of the calmest kids for a volunteer’s attention or the kids themselves would just run and tackle us from the back to garner our attention. Although, I suppose with so many kids and only so many volunteers, as well as an almost apparent lack of authority from the mothers, scenes like this were bound to happen.
Despite these few squabbles between the kids, many of us made strong bonds with the children in the limited time that we had together. Although I was only in Vietnam for a short amount of time, the whole experience allowed me to open my eyes to the plight of others around the world. While I’m not announcing myself as a crusader of children in need due to this trip, I did gain a new perspective. After this trip, I came to the realization that even though humans are generally self-centered, if we all helped each other out, the world would be a much better place.