Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

You want to buy something, Mister?

By Volunteer Ravi Kumar
Project VI Participant

Every year, The Children's Education Project in Vietnam takes place. The majority of the participants are members of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), where they are employed in Japan as English teachers and local government employees. I myself am on my third (and final) year of the program, where I am employed as a municipal employee in Nagano, Japan, the host of the XVIII Olympic Winter Games.

My impetus for participating in this project was the slow acceleration of several divergent interests which I had been developing over the past several years. Though I am Asian-American growing up in a small suburban community in Cleveland, OH (ironically the headquarters for the Children's Education Project in Vietnam), my understanding of Asian culture was limited to my Indian heritage alone. Important experiences in middle school helped me to understand Asian identity in much broader geo-political contexts. I began to focus on Japanese language and culture, studying them independently in high school.

After my freshman year in high school, I went back to Indian with my family. Although I had been to India several times in my childhood, I began to see the country, its people, and its poverty from a slightly different perspective. India is one of the poorest countries in the world, and despite recent economical development and growth , the country continues to be plagued, like many developing countries, by political corruption (on a national and local level), ecological devastation, and mismanaged fiscal policies. Oddly, the state where my family is from (Kerala), has been run by a communist (albeit democratic) government since independence in 1949, and is considered, by far, to be one of the most advanced states in the nation, with 90% literacy and a highly intelligent, well educated population and burgeoning economy.

And then I began to realize something. Life is so arbitrary.

Despite these advances, I saw poverty on a massive scale in India. A poignant experience comes to mind: driving through the slums of Bombay in an air-conditioned British made car. It was there, in the slums of Bombay, that I saw poverty like I had never seen before. Although I had volunteered in soup kitchen in Cleveland, nothing would prepare me for that experience. The car seemed to drive on for miles. What was once an oasis of grass had turned in to a barren wasteland? I saw children so that thin you could clearly see all the fragile bones of their rib cage, their shrunken eyes and bonny eye sockets. I saw children filthy literally blackened by dirt, covered by ants and flies, playing with garbage, their only source of entertainment. I saw old men and babies bathing in waters were sewage freely flowed. I saw those same people take makeshift buckets back to flimsy wooden shacks, where they used the water to cook rotten vegetables. What I remember most though, was the curious smell of death: the smell of cow dung and disease permeating my uncle's chauffeured car. The smell of leather melting in 100 degree weather. These were the backwaters of India; here there are no economic miracles to speak of.

It was a profound experience for me. My parents have always taught me the value of money, how lucky we are to live in an advanced liberal democracy, where our rights and liberties are guaranteed; how not to waste money. I thought about that last point in particular. How much money have I wasted on frivolous entertainment? Did I really need that new walkman, or CD? $20 could have fed one of those families for a month. My mind was awash in questions. Is this the sort of poverty the Prince Guatama experience? Why was there so much pain and suffering? What were my responsibilities as a human being to help those people?

It was that experience and this set of questions that plagued me, even to this day. In high school, I examined the problem from the perspective of religion. Attending a catholic school in Cleveland, I was taught the Christian perspective on suffering and poverty. In my spare time, I volunteered at a municipal hospital, a soup kitchen and a Buddhist temple, as well as studying other religions and philosophies (particularly Buddhism and Hinduism), in an effort to bring a sense of closure to these very personal issues.

Even by the time I entered college, I still had not come up with a satisfactory answer. I majored in Asian Studies and World Politics, which gave me an appreciation for the cultures of the Far East, and a political/economic/historical perspective on the problems facing Asia.

Vietnam, to me, proved to be the nexus point of all of these divergent issues. Studies I completed in college in regard to colonialism in Asia blended with my interest in Southeast Asian art, Hianyan Buddhism (the "Lesser Vehicle" of Buddhist Dharma), and Chinese studies. I was constantly forced to reexamine complex theoretical issues in cultural studies concerning closure, historical representation, cultural displacement, and reinscription and cultural mimicry.

Vietnam was once a colony of the French empire, where it derives its name, "Indochine". Trade with China and Indian even earlier in its history also had had profound effects on its culture.

Intellectually, then, Vietnam proved to be very interesting and challenging. But Vietnam challenged me emotionally as well. More so than just traveling, the Children's Education Project forces you to confront your beliefs, and in the words of one of the directors, Dr. McCarthy, it forces you to "reexamine your life". Ironically, one of the most challenging (and in some ways) rewarding experiences I had was on my very last day in Vietnam.

After the project had formally ended, I traveled north, from Nha Trang to Hoi An and Hue. Although my companion, another participant on the program, found the journey rough and unpleasant, I had a lovely time. The best way to see a country is to travel its roads, to see how its people live on a day to day basis. The roads were not paved, and very bumpy at times, but the surrounding beauty of the countryside made up for it. Besides, I found the roads in India to be much worse (at least there were no chickens, cows or bandits blocking your path), and we were in an air-conditioned miniature bus.

But more than that, I realized how lucky I was to have the opportunity to participate on this lovely volunteer project. Traveling to Hoi An and Hue, I began to see Vietnam as regular tourists see it. I felt lucky that I Had the chance to see a side of Vietnam that ordinary traveler s could not see, even if they wanted to. But, sightseeing, although it imposes several logistical challenges, was not emotionally/spiritually challenging. In one of those ironic turns of life, it was not until I returned to Saigon that I faced these emotional challenges.

Returning to Saigon alone, I checked into the hotel that the project stayed in during the first half of the project. Seeing the conference room where we had meetings, I suddenly suffered acute pangs of loneliness, something that had no really bother me until now. I went to sleep that night wondering what I was going to do.

The next morning I woke up to a great surprise! I went down to have breakfast, only to meet Joe, Yao, and Dr. McCarthy! I was so happy to see familiar faces. That day, Yao and Joe had a meeting with some people, so the Doc and I decided to walk around Saigon. Although I was dreading Saigon for the whole trip, it turned out to be the best experience I had in Vietnam!

Although there is a massive difference in our ages (I am 25 and he is in his 50s... I think. If you are reading this, don't get upset if I am wrong), we became fast friends as he started telling me about his life, and his involvement with the Project. In addition to being a neck surgeon, Dr. McCarty was an actor (he was on a soap opera and several commercials), a building commissioner, a psychiatrist, and a father. I reflected on what an amazing life this man must have had, pulling himself out of poverty, putting himself through medical school, deciding to become an actor, his dedication to helping the people of Vietnam through his involvement with the Project. But, through the very way he led his life, he reaffirmed to me how lucky I am in my life, to have the good fortune to be born into a family that loves me, into the richest country in the world.

Another thing that made my last day in Saigon so special was the people we met. Thinking that because it was the big city, I was suspicious of everyone–convincing myself that there were pickpockets and con artists on every corner ( I also had suspicions that there were plain-clothed policemen following us. To this day, I really don't know if that was our imagination or not).

One incident that I will always hold dear to my heart was when we met three of the cutest kids I have ever laid my eyes upon. They came up to us to sell things. Being my third week in Vietnam, I was beginning to suffer from "beggar fatigue" and I really didn't need anything. But these kids were cute and sharp as a whistle. I decided to buy something from all of the, but both the Doc and I thought it was best to do it somewhere were there were not a lot of people. We found a small park. So, as I was looking through their stuff, we began to chat. It turned out that they spoke Japanese, French, and Spanish! Being that I am fluent in French and Japanese, I began to talk to them. I must admit they spoke brilliantly. I started teaching them phrases they could use to attract more customers. One of them had a most amazing gift for languages, and repeated everything I said verbatim. I wanted to help them so much, and I offered them money, but they refused to take it. They said they hadn't earned it. They would feel better if I bought something. I ended up buying something from all of them. Every time I see the fan I bought, I recall these cute little creatures. Both the Doc and I went back to the hotel that night with a profound feeling of happiness in our hearts.

I guess that experience would be amazing in and of itself. But my time and experiences in Vietnam would not have such a tidy and neat sense of closure, emotionally or otherwise. That evening, Doc, Joseph, and Giao had a meeting to attend. Not knowing exactly what to do with myself, I decided to go to the Hard Rock Cafe and be a typical American tourist for the night. What a disappointment! Not only was it completely empty, there was no live band and the first "American" hamburger that I have had in over a year (remember I live in Japan...) turned out to be a major disappointment. I decided to get out of there as quickly as possible.

But in one of those odd ironies of life, that evening turned out to be the highlight of my trip! Leaving the Cafe, I roamed around the area for awhile, aimlessly wandering the streets of Saigon. And then I heard a voice behind me; small, high-pitched, female. "You wanna buy something, Mister?" I turned around to see, low and behold, the same girl and her loyal cohorts that Doc and I met earlier that day! Imagine my shock when she remembered my name, joking with me about my "son" Dr. McCarthy. "Hey Ravi, how's your son, George? You won't take your son to a bar, I guess?", she joked good naturedly.

Unfortunately, I still didn't want to buy anything. But it was late, and I was worried about these girls. Didn't they have homes to go to? I suspected that they didn't, but this produced a wonderful opportunity to find out some more. Have you had dinner? Yes, I see. Looking around, there were only a few very posh restaurants that they surely wouldn't be allowed into. But there was always a Baskin Robbins, 31 flavors. Do you guys want ice-cream? YEAH!

So there I was, a 6'2" American being dragged into an ice-cream shop in downtown Saigon, on the tenth day of the new millennium, by three 10 year old girls. I talked to the lady at the shop, and explained that I was going to buy "my girls" ice cream. She was a nice person, smiled and asked them what they wanted. After they spent a few frazzled moments deciding what they want (I told them they could have anything there little heart desired), we sat down to have ice-cream.

I found out a lot that night, about what it means to live on the streets of Saigon, to live everyday in poverty. I taught them some more Japanese that they could use (they had remembered all of the phrases I had taught them just a few short hours ago... that seemed like years ago to me...). For their part, they taught me about child gangs, about territories, about child alliances; in short, they bought their books and supplies from dealers, that they each had their own territories, that there are gangsters on every street in Saigon. In short, I learned about a world that until this very moment, was nearly invisible to me.

That night after we parted company, I was about to get into a taxi, when a prostitute tried to solicit me. I refused, she tried to get into my cab, and I had to literally kick her out of the taxi.

Coming home to Japan, I developed my pictures. When I was going through my pictures, the very last one is of three cute girls sitting on a bench in an ice-cream parlor, smiling stupidly with chocolate ice cream all over their faces and hands. I thought about that hooker as well. Which way will their lives turn out? I hope that these kids turn out to lead good lives. I hope that they do not end up becoming prostitutes, I hope that they survive. I hope.

Almost everything in life was just luck. I am fortunate that I was born in a wealthy society, to good intelligent parents who love me. I am fortunate that i was born in a country, that, despite a plethora of social and historical problems, has a relatively fair and open democratic practice. I am fortunate because I was born in a country with sound medical care, that I have access to because of my parent's socio-economic status.

And then I began to realize something. Life is so arbitrary. I had no choice in my upbringing. I didn't get to choose my parents, or my cultural background, or the country I was born in. It just happened. Intellectualizing this notion through studying Zen Buddhism is one thing, realization through experience is quite another. It was then that I began to realize the true values of Buddhist compassion exercises. All of my studies of culture and cultural differences are so meaningless. There is no difference between those kids and me. In a very real sense, these kids and I are the same. My eyes welled up and I felt a tear silently slip down my cheek, landing on the high quality rice paper I bought to practice calligraphy. It stained the paper slightly before being absorbed into the strong rice fibers. Gone forever.


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