Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Handshakes, Smiles, Songs, and a Dance

By Volunteer Ai-Ling Lin
Project XII Participant

Visiting the Home for the Elders and Handicapped was our first volunteering program on this project. Coming to Vietnam for the first time, I did not know what to expect for this visit. After the bus reversed for about 2 minutes on a busy major road and turned into a bumpy dirt road I began to wonder what this home would be like. At first, we were led into a spacious conference room-like place with some of the Vietnamese officials. Gia Hoa and the representatives made some speeches to welcome our visit. Gia Hoa had bought some blankets and instant noodles for each of the occupants in the home. She said that the weather this year has become colder in Vietnam and that the elders would need blankets more than anything else.

We walked over to another open area with long benches and tables with all the blankets and boxes of instant noodles. We handed out a blanket, a box of noodles, and some money to each of the elders. At first, the elders would line up and the participants of the project would be handing out each of the items or refilling the supplies. It was a very efficient system and set-up. Then, occasionally, we were asked to prepare some blankets and noodles on the side for those who are not mobile enough to come down to the common area to receive the items.

This visit really made me smile at what I can do.

I was on one of those missions to bring the noodles and blankets to other rooms. We distributed the supplies individually to each of the elders in that one room and they were all smiling and want to hold my hand as I handed over the items. The only Vietnamese phrase that I knew was “Xin chao” and the elders would laugh or smile when they hear my attempt in the Vietnamese phrase. After we had finished distributing in that room, everyone clapped and smiled for us and we joined them too. Many of them waved their hands energetically as we walked out the door back to the common room. We responded with just as much more energy too with each waving hands and smiling eyes.

Afterwards, we went back to the common room and helped out with more restacking and distributing the items. Then we moved on to another part of the home. The elderly women were on the 2nd floor and the handicapped children were on the first floor. I visited the elderly women first because I was helping out with bringing the supplies upstairs. Many of the elder women wanted to hold my hands as I said 'xin chao.' I went and sat next to a couple of them. Although I could not understand what she was saying endlessly in Vietnamese, I just smiled and listened. One woman had a really fashionable punk hair style, all spiked up and twisted to the side. I tried to tell the woman that I have 5 older sisters and I am number 6 in the family. She started pointing at me and said in English 'number 1' and pointing at herself and said 'number 20.' Then she would burst out laughing and shyly cover her face in her hands. Then she pointed at herself again and said 'number 6.' Everyone in the room shared the joy and her shyness when she covered her face in her hands. The laughter, pointing and numbers were repeated over and over again.

Next, I went downstairs to visit the handicapped children. I was shocked at first when I walked in to see about 12 children in one room resting on long wooden planks which were their beds. Their eyes followed me as I moved around the room and waved at them. Many of them tried to talk or make noises to get my attention. The caregivers came up and explained that the children could not talk well and most of them cannot comprehend verbal languages. However, they still expressed their excitements of seeing visitors through sounds, attempt in moving their twisted limbs, and some facial expressions. It was difficult for me to keep the smile on my face watching what was in front of me. One of the girls was 19 years old even though she looked like she was 12 on her bed. She held my hand and smiled. Another boy was 32 years old. I should not call them children at all. Some of them are older than me, even though they looked so young and dependent.

Marianne wanted to pass out Christmas cards to them, but she was warned by the caregivers that the patients might hurt themselves with the cards. Instead, she gave some of the cards to the caregivers to show appreciation for all their hard work and perhaps they can show the cards to the patients in a better way. After seeing these handicapped patients, I really felt privileged just to be normal, or so we call it.

Then, I went back upstairs because we wanted to show some other participants the old lady with the punk hair. We ended up singing Christmas songs and dancing. Our Vietnamese friend, Ken, showed us a 'Hello Vietnam' song and dance. We performed it in every room on the 2nd floor. We did not have time to share our new dance to the handicapped patients because it was time to leave. Instead, we performed our finale in the courtyard and finished it with the '12 days of Christmas' song.

This visit really made me smile at what I can do. Although it was just a simple dance or handshake from me, the elders and handicapped patients were so happy and excited. I learned to appreciate small things. I hope that we had brightened some of the people's days and that the supplies that they received can really help them for a long time.

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