Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

A Heart-Centered Journey

By Volunteer Junaline Banez
Past Project Coordinator

It has been a year and a half of planning. It hit me, reading Elaine Mew's article in last year's JET Journal about the Project in Vietnam that that was something I wanted to do. Feeling disenchanted, I wanted to get away from the commercialism and the materialism that seem to permeate the developed world.

The hope that simple living still existed somewhere was encouraging enough for me to embark on this journey to Vietnam. I also wanted to understand, and to be accepting of, other people.

I was born in the Philippines and immigrated to Canada at age thirteen. I came from both developing and developed worlds. In all aspects, I have had the experience of living a bi-cultural and bilingual life. However, it wasn't until I came to Japan that an ardent desire to "connect with my roots" fully emerged. I tried to remind myself that I was once a child of the third or "developing" world.

For a brief moment, I thought I was seeing my own grandmother in her nursing home.

"But why Vietnam?" This question was posed me several times in Japan. I would always answer that it could have been anywhere in the world that needed help. Part soul-searching and part "service-providing," the Education and Children's Project embodied my hope to link peoples of the world.

To begin my mission, I embarked on a fundraising campaign in my town, raising awareness of Vietnam by staging a charity concert. From money to toys to school supplies, gifts of love poured forth from my community. The result was phenomenal; the Project for me really started in Japan. It was rewarding to see people's enthusiasm for and Some may go to school, and some may not be able to. But all children have the same need for shelter, education, health, nutrition, fun and happiness! I wanted to let my Japanese students know how they must appreciate and be grateful for what they have. They're not necessarily luckier than their Vietnamese counterparts, but they do have more.

My students felt compassion and joined in the charitable drive for the Project. They enthusiastically made Christmas cards, posters and donated used toys and goods. Their eyes lit up when I told them how happy this would make a Vietnamese child or orphan. Friendships were forged right there. Children are great. They, above all, make us more "human." It is a humbling experience to be around them. An eight-year old boy in one of my elementary schools expressed how very happy he was to make friends with Vietnamese children, even though he had no clue where Vietnam was! It wasn't only me reaching out to Vietnam: my students shared in this.

And so I delivered gifts of love from Japan. To see beaming eyes full of happiness in both countries, I was overjoyed! I know love is indeed the best four-letter word.

"Merci, Madame"

I had many beautiful and poignant experiences while in Vietnam, but one that I shall never forget happened while visiting the home for the elderly and the disabled in Ho Chi Minh City. This complex, made up of about four large buildings, was established in 1964 by a priest but has been presided over by the government since Reunification. There are 576 residents, 444 men and 132 women. The mentally and the physically challenged are placed together, regardless of the severity of their physical or mental disability. The majority of them were separated from their families during the war. It was here, while handing out packets of noodles, cookies and 10,000 dong to each resident that I met the most beautiful angel named Nguyen Thi Hai.

For some unknown reason, I was drawn like a magnet to this particular woman's ward. Despite the other five patients there, I immediately rushed to this frail old lady, laying in bed with her legs bunched up. She was paralyzed from the waist down, probably due to a stroke. For a brief moment, I thought I was seeing my own grandmother in her nursing home. My chance meeting with Nguyen Thi Hai was indescribable: tears came pouring from our eyes, as if we'd made some soulful connection, as if she knew me and I her. I held her hand while she uttered something in Vietnamese. With the help of a translator, I found out that she was 95 years old and had been abandoned by her family. I couldn't imagine the loneliness she must have felt. At the same time, I imagined she must have been of a tough breed. Her strength was belied by the softness of her speech and the gentleness of her manner. I couldn't help thinking that she must have lived through French colonial rule, World War Two, and the American War. She probably had outlived her children, if she had had any. Despite her tears, I sensed there was little that could faze her and nothing that could terrify her, certainly not death.

It pained me to know that I was only going to be with her for a brief time. But by holding hands and being present together at that moment, our hearts spoke much louder. To touch hearts surpasses anything of the visual or regular tactile kind. As we bid each other good-bye, she uttered something again. In French this time: "Merci, madame. " In my heart, I knew I was the more grateful one.

Vietnam, Dep Lam ("beautiful" in Vietnamese)

What an amazingly beautiful country! Here were the most beautiful shades of green and blue I had ever seen, from the verdant rice paddies of Tay Ninh, to the gorgeous beaches of Nha Trang, to the aromatic coffee plantations of Dalat - here were colours that I never thought existed! It was such an elegant mosaic, the ideal place between heaven and earth.

Aside from her physical beauty, Vietnam's most characterizing aspect was her people. Everywhere we went, we were showered with "Hello's", smiles and hugs. The people were very gracious and sweet. I hadn't been hugged that much in 1.5 years of living in Japan! It was a great feeling, for touch is something very human. To reach out physically to people, even to strangers, exemplifies the universal notion of our interconnectedness, and is extremely comforting.

One of the best parts of this trip was travelling by bus. The opportunity to meet local people whenever the bus stopped was where contact began. We were almost always seen as "token" tourists, but that's OK. Despite the brevity of meeting and the novelty of us being foreign, some kind of connection was made. Rediscovering the Magic: All You Need is Love!

Back in Japan, I know I have to deliver. I feel very privileged to have participated in the sixth Vietnam Education and Children's Project. It was an honour to coordinate and organize something truly worthwhile that will stay with me forever. The kind of volunteer work that we did in Vietnam transcends the old success/failure dichotomy. How can you fail whenever you are giving? The essence of it all was we received more than we gave. Exhausted but exhilarated, we were motivated by the spirit of sharing. We realized that Christmas began not when the gifts were given but when the challenge to love was taken up. Peace and joy found homes in our hearts.

The Project was truly for children, both in Japan and Vietnam. It wasdedicated to them, for they are the hopes and dreams of the future. The world over, they are the same. They're happy in their make-believe worlds, and they demand our time, patience and understanding.

When love is the force in our lives, we don't need to worry about a poor performance. When we give, our worth is never on the line. The brightest future of the human race is just a mere fantasy if we only continue to rush about trying to please our insatiable materialistic desires. I don't mean to pontificate, only to appeal. What is a global crisis is also a local one, and, at base, a personal one too. We have to remind ourselves how much we have to give away, and how precious and worthy giving is. This is the force of love, from whence humanity draws its energy and strength. I once heard that "the essence of life is that in a brief moment, we can love some people and some things." There is an absolute and beautiful truth to be found in this statement. There can be no better freedom than to be free to love one another.

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