Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Back to Vietnam

By Volunteer Kerra Bui
Project Participant

I never expected to gain so much knowledge about Vietnam, relations between people, and myself from this Project dedicated to helping others. I first visited Vietnam as a backpacker last spring break, only eight months prior to the Children's Education Project. Having been born and raised in the U.S. by parents who had emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, that trip was nothing short of exhilarating. At that time, I went to Vietnam with a friend instead of my parents or a tour group. I wanted an unfiltered experience, not an experience that someone wanted for me or molded for me. I was in a country where everyone spoke Vietnamese, which I had previously only been able to speak with my family. Knowing the language enabled me to speak to the people and learn from them. Never had I felt so close to my roots before. It was then that I made the life-changing decision to have a career in which I would be a part of the efforts to improve the depressed areas of Vietnam. How could any other trip beat that?

Each time I made eye contact with a local, I wanted to tell them, "I am Vietnamese, too."

The answer: By being different. This Project expanded my sense of identity. I was more than sightseeing in the land of my roots, I was giving back and being a responsible tourist. This trip differed from my first in that I was not simply a citizen of one country visiting another country. It was more about the feelings of caring and generosity from many countries converging in Viet Nam. The Project also gave me the chance to be with many people I never would have met had I come back to Vietnam on a second backpacking trip. As a result of my experiences in homes for the disabled and elderly, schools, and orphanages, I was able to internalize a multitude of lessons as a Vietnamese-American.

Each time I made eye contact with a local, I wanted to tell them, "I am Vietnamese, too." This initial desire for acceptance as a Vietnamese was the first of many differences between my two trips to Vietnam. I had been so eager to connect with the Vietnamese on my first trip that I tried to be one of the Vietnamese people, at least in mind and spirit. During this Project however, I embraced my identity?my Vietnamese-American identity. I saw that it was not necessary to choose one or the other to be stronger. I could be the Vietnamese girl that they could talk with in Vietnamese, while at the same time I was also the American coming to help with other foreigners. It was not necessary to connect with the people by trying to be more Vietnamese than I already was. This Project made it possible for me to interact more closely to the people by bringing me into direct contact with not only those Vietnamese working in hotels, restaurants, tour companies, but also students, nurses, doctors, and entire families.

It is through important programs such as the Children's Project that travelers can meet and have a positive effect on a greater portion of a country's population, rather than just intrude and sightsee as a tourist in that country. While traveling, I have often witnessed and lamented the disparities between countries, especially between "developed" and "developing" countries. The tourist industries and governments of these countries welcome tourists for their money and sometimes for their novelty. Still, it seems to me that most tourists take more than they give to the countries they visit. At times there is truth behind negative images of Americans and other foreign tourists as being rude, loud, and/or arrogant in the countries they visit. These are some of the reasons I wanted to distance myself from my American identity during my previous Vietnam visit.

Despite the negative behavior relating to foreign tourists that I have seen, this time I was proud to be a part of this group of foreigners?people who shared their time, money, and hearts to help those who are not touched by the tourism industry. Most people have great, fun vacations, but how many have trips that are also personally meaningful? Beyond that, how many travelers take trips that are meaningful to the people they meet?

I knew that Vietnam was a poor country, but this Project taught me firsthand what real poverty is. One of the places we visited was a school in the country. After a scholarship ceremony, we played with the students in the schoolyard. As I gave out pencils, all the children around me grabbed for them. It was a madhouse! I soon learned that this level of excitement over pencils would develop every time as a result of their level of poverty. Before giving a student a pencil, I practiced English with them first (e.g., "What is your name?" "How old are you?"), so it took quite some time to pass them all out. Many students were impatient and did not want to wait, as they were worried about not getting one. They pushed and shoved to get near me but I made sure the little ones got pencils, too. I was glad when I ran out of pencils because it meant that I was able to talk to the students without them asking for anything. A few of the girls wanted to know all about the United States and me. "Does it snow in the U.S.? Do you live near the site of the terrorist attacks?" I wanted to answer every one of their questions, but the visit was coming to a close, and we had to go. The girls said they would write to me, but knowing that they probably could not afford postage to Japan, I gave them the last of my Vietnamese money for stamps.

These deprivations highlight the gap between the rural Vietnamese and us. These students get excited about a single pencil, while people in our home countries lose them and do not give it a second thought. Children who want to learn more about the world they live in cannot afford the money to buy postage stamps, while many of us in developed countries have Internet access to send mail almost instantaneously.

I noticed this gap and met many people I wished I could help during my first visit to Vietnam, and I had tried to do what I could. It seems warped to me that some of us have a hard time deciding on what to wear, while other people in the world do not have that choice, as they are more concerned about their next meal. It is not uncommon in Vietnam for children living away from the larger cities to have only one set of clothes. During my first visit to Vietnam, I sent a boy working in a hotel a shirt because he had told me had only one. The Project enabled me to do more providing access to some of Vietnam's most poverty-stricken rural areas. The other volunteers and I had brought boxes and suitcases full of clothes, toys, and school supplies with us to Vietnam. The donations were to benefit hundreds of people, like the students I met in the schoolyard.

During the Project, while on visits to places like this school and to orphanages, I was able to grasp, from the Vietnamese children, one of many lessons that were reiterated throughout the course of this trip. If my parents had not emigrated to the U.S. for its economic opportunities and social and political freedoms, I myself would have been born and raised in Vietnam. Instead, as someone who has grown up in an industrialized nation, I have often failed to fully appreciate the material comforts that have surrounded me all my life. That is why the difference between American facilities and Vietnamese facilities struck and saddened me to a much greater extent than I expected. But I came to see that despite not having all the luxuries we enjoy, these children did not behave as if they felt sorry for themselves. Instead, they were constantly eager to learn and striving to overcome their circumstances. Some competed for scholarships because they could not afford to attend school without them. I may have initially felt sad for the children, but after interacting with them, they were no longer "the needy". Instead, I came to see them as people whose life was filled with goals, sadness, laughter, and joy, like my own.

At these rural schools and orphanages, as was the case everywhere I went during the Project, I was able to communicate in Vietnamese with people I met. I soon discovered that this was a useful, but not a necessary means for us volunteers to touch, and be touched, by those we were aspiring to help. Other members of our group came away with stories similar to my own. At one of the nursing homes that we visited, Claire a fellow Project participant, hugged and comforted an elderly woman as she cried in her arms. Claire called me over to translate for them. The woman told Claire that she and I were good young women and that she was grateful for our visit because it eased her loneliness. Claire told me to tell this woman that she would never forget her. Claire, and those volunteers who spoke very little (if any) Vietnamese, communicated in other ways: through their tone of voice, a touch, a smile, laughter, and songs.

The Children's Education Project made possible such interactions and instances of emotional closeness between volunteers and the Vietnamese people by putting its volunteers face to face with the people. This was done to help the people, rather than only observe them in passing as most tourists do. At one home for the physically and mentally disabled which was shared by elderly people, the elderly men lined up single file to receive a bag of groceries from a volunteer. Each man also received 10,000 dong - about 70 cents U.S. - which was enough to cover basic food needs for several days. As we handed them the food and money, I thought, who were we to be their benefactors? What had we, the children of the "first world", done to deserve to be born and raised in more developed countries with the opportunities of education and travel?

Before long, however, I came to understand that view as only one way to see things-the negative way. I realized that I should not feel sorry for these men. All I had to do was get to know them and then it became just a case of two people enjoying each other's company rather than an act of charity. This change in viewpoint was an important difference between my first trip to Vietnam and this trip eight months later. On this Project trip, I did not feel hopeless when confronted with life's injustices. I played my small role in alleviating them by helping the people, not only financially with my contributions to the Project and manually by packing and delivering food, school, and medical supplies, but also socially through the simple act of getting to know the people I met.

The lesson of looking beyond the surface of an unfortunate situation to find the good in it was reiterated after we had finished distributing the food and envelopes to the elderly men. We moved on to the disabled ward, which was one big room with about sixty beds. Each of us went around the room and socialized with the men. I approached a 76-year old man sitting on his bed. After having spoken with a few other residents of the room and receiving a variety of responses, I did not know what to expect from this man; his reaction could have ranged from apathetic to extremely welcoming. Happily, it was the latter. He told me that he could not move his legs: he was a paraplegic, but that his arms and mind were still very strong. He had much to say about his life and his religion. I think he enjoyed my company. As we sat and talked, I noticed that the men in the disabled ward each had their own bed, but instead of a mattress, they slept on bare plywood, and clearly lacked privacy. It was a sad situation. I struggled to hold back tears while other volunteers dabbed at their eyes with tissue. But I was glad to have had a positive impact on some of these men, because I do not think many of them get visitors.

For the duration of the Project and beyond, the constant presence of so many benevolent people, including both the volunteers and the director of the program, coupled with the rewarding nature of the volunteer work itself, inspired me to continue to give even when I was not working. As I explored Saigon alone, I felt myself both smiling more and wanting to help the people I saw in the ways that I was able to help on the Project. I then realized that my mindset had changed. I recognized a marked increase in my feelings of compassion. Perhaps there is no greater gift that we can give to each other.


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