Thursday, November 29, 2012

For those I love, I will sacrifice...

"While no one is expected to leap tall buildings in a single bound, our aspiring heroes will be tested on their courage, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion and resourcefulness - the stuff of all true superheroes". Stan Lee

I know I have many 'babies' but two of my first 'babies' have been Jake and Ellis. I started nannying for these two when they were just under 2 and 4 yrs old and have been with them ever since. Although I don't 'nanny' them anymore, our relationship has turned into something more. These two boys and their mother Jackie, are part of my family now, my support system.


 Jake and Ellis now 15 and 13 yrs old, have been following my journey and have been so touched by the stories that they decided to take some action. 

They held fundraisers, got their schools involved and Ellis even held a fundraiser party instead of a bar mitzvah/ 13th birthday party and donated all the proceeds to me to help the people I have met here..... These two amazing, compassionate teenagers have pooled together over $3000!!!!!! An amazing triumph for anyone, let alone teenagers!
They are coming here to join me in a few weeks and I cannot wait for them to meet my new babies and people in the community they are going to help.

Upon investigating families and poor communities for Jake and Ellis to help I came across Thao.
Thao is 16 years old and has a mother with a mental illness who is unable to work. She also has a 14 year old brother and a 7 year old sister. Their father works in the fields, spraying the crops for insects and bugs. They are so poor that they are on the governments list of poorest families to support.
I went to meet this family and discovered that Thao had dropped out of school last year because the family could not afford her school fees. She has been working in a local factory for the last few months where they have been teaching her to cut patterns to make clothes. She has not been paid yet as she is still 'training' and when she starts getting paid it will be as low as $40 per month.

I asked her if she liked school and she said yes and her face lit up. I asked her if she had the means to go back to school would she? At first she said yes with a huge smile stretched across her pretty face and then she began crying....
She said she liked school and wanted to go back but she was to scared to go back because she thinks she is dumb and after missing out for a year, she did not have any faith and confidence in herself that she could keep up with the lessons.
Her other concern was one of embarrassment as all her friends would be in a grade above her and she would lag behind them a year.
Her third concern was how her family was going to survive and how they needed money so she wanted to work to help them and ensure that her brother would continue school. Her mother does not even take meds for her condition as they cannot afford them and she wanted to change that.

Thao's Mother watching their chickens...

She was trying not to cry and she was holding it in, which made it even worse..... I went up to hug her and console her and she tried to push me away but I tried again and then it was like that physical contact opened the flood gates and tears were streaming down her face in an endless flow.

I should also mention that 4 different neighbors had come to see why a westerner was in this house. So everyone was sitting in this tiny house, listening, watching and adding their two cents in. They would not let Thao talk that at one stage I got so annoyed that I said in an exasperated tone "im lang!" which means "be quiet" and they all sort of stopped and looked at me!

Street this family live on...

I explained to her that she only had two more years left and if she wanted to go back I would help pay for her fees and textbooks..... a total cost of $100 a YEAR. I also told her not to worry about her being stupid, her brain was fine and will continue to learn up until she was a Granny. However, if she had concerns, I would also get her extra tutoring.
I tried to explain to her that I understand that she worries for her family but if she finished high school, she could get a better job, earn more and support them better.

She just kept crying. I felt horrible bringing all this up for her...... I could tell she hated her job but felt compelled to persevere for her family's sake.
I told her to think about my offer and that I will call in a few days to ask her what she wanted to do. I would help her family through this.

I called back hoping that she would say yes, she would go back and finish school but I was actually disappointed for her when she refused the offer. I tried to explain to her that by me coming here was like winning the lotto. She would not have another chance or offer from someone to help send her to school and support her through it. She was sobbing by this stage and all she kept saying was to help her brother if I could and not to worry about her......

I was seriously heart broken for this girl and wept for her. At 16 years old to feel such a burden.... to sacrifice herself the chance for a better future all because her family is poor and she feels the responsibility to go out and work and support them.....

“Doing the right thing for someone else occasionally means doing something that feels wrong to you.”
― Jodi Picoult

Front of Family's House...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Not goodbye but a see you later...

My one year anniversary is coming up in about 3 weeks. A full year here in Tam Ky. Where has the year gone?
So I guess........ I will be coming home soon! I know a lot of you have been asking me when I am coming home so rest assured, I will let you all know when I land in Sydney to start catching up on a year's worth of gossip.
I have really mixed emotions about this impending departure.
Now more than ever I want to stay with my children as I know that no one else is going to be here with them from January till March. Yet, at the same time I am looking forward to coming home and seeing the special people in my life and catching up with family and friends. And of course, I look forward to being reunited with my Macca's (that's McDonald's for all you Americans who don't know what Macca's is!)

I have been so fortunate enough to have some friends join me here recently in Tam Ky and meet all these special little ones. They have fallen in love and want to bring them home after a week of being with them! Imagine me after this one year and everything we have gone through together.

 Today I told the older girls in the orphanage that I have to return home soon. With a mixture of my random Vietnamese words slumped together to create a makeshift sentence and charades, they understood. There was a collective gaping of the mouths and then sad faces with slumped shoulders. I wanted to cry right then and there in the silence that followed.
I then told them that for my farewell I was going to go out with a huge headache and have a party for ALL the orphans I have been working with at a restaurant. Heads came back up and celebratory 'yays' were heard around the room.

I figured I would go all out and take everyone out instead of having a party at each of the orphanages as  after I leave, I am sure they will not have the opportunity to be taken on excursions and get out of the orphanage.
Maybe I got over excited the day I booked out an entire restaurant for 200 people for my party?
What was I thinking? 150 orphans and 50 adults all together for a party?
Yep, I have lost it! But hey! When in Vietnam.....

It seems that every little thing has been setting the water works in motion today:
Sen would not let me go today. I even put her on the floor and she wrapped her chubby little fingers around my leg and held on tight. When I tried to shake her off playfully, she began to giggle whole heartily that I cried.
Nghia came up to me to show me some wounds and scratches on his back...... I asked how it happened and he told me that the 'kingpin' of the orphanage did it to him cos he thought he stole his necklace. He was whispering and telling me because if word got out that he 'dobbed', he would probably get beaten again. Orphanage politics. But I welled up again at the thought of how much trust he must have in me to come and tell me; Nghia knows that I am fair and that I would not betray his confidence, whilst at the same time, find a way to reprimand the kingpin.
It takes so much time to get through to these children and build up a relationship with them. I could tell you all 74 children's stories, personalities, likes and dislikes. They have gotten to the point where they trust me and actually listen to me! They know how far they can push boundaries with me and what my limit is. Go the tough love!
The last few days with them has been bliss. They have all been behaving and bringing me back my toys when they have finished playing with them, sharing the bicycles and my favourite... being honest! When I first got here, when I would hand out fruit, some of them would lie and come up and tell me they didn't get any and scam a second piece of fruit. I couldn't work out why I was short on fruit almost everyday and concluded that I must be worse at maths than I thought!
Yesterday, I bought them all banana fritters and I had so many left over that I figured I missed some children. So I went off to do the rounds again to see who I missed and every single one of them was honest and told me they had received one. Even the boys I was sure I did not give one to. Some smart a$$ boys came up to me and asked me for one as they never got one, but they did it in a way that I knew they were joking and teasing me. I love how I have reached that level with them. Well then... I guess my maths really is bad! The carers were happy cos they scored a banana fritter each too. Win - Win!

Even the children at Peace Village have been amazing. We took them out to a restaurant to eat on a whim and from the original 8, I smuggled 12 out in one go. Thank God for my friends who were here to help. Their faces and joy when they saw the bus and realised I was taking them out.... it was priceless. Hello tears!

Phuong had gone home mid week and I was sure something was up as it takes alot for them to miss on a day of schooling. She came back very upset and I found out her grandfather had passed away. She sat on the edge of her bed and cried. Thanh, her close friend at the orphanage was so upset for her, she was almost in tears too and sat next to her, talking to her and trying to comfort her. I sat with her and she hugged me as she cried. I of course then cried. Moments like these I wish I could speak more Vietnamese. But then again, I am sure she understood I was there for her, wiping her tears away.... Having to deal with death at such a young age as well, with really no support around her made me sad.

I was getting emotional thinking about who will take over my 'role' when I left. And 'nobody' was the answer I kept coming up with. I am sure they will get by, there is no doubt about that, however, they will get by without that extra bit (and in some cases, only) bit of love, warmth, support and comfort.

Who is going to take care of all their wounds and cuts? The nurse is still as useless as a sack of potatoes and my ritual with my little green medical box still continues today. They all come up to me and show me their wounds and battle scars and I disinfect, make things better with band aids and kisses.

Who is going to rotate and move the disabled kids around?

 Take Sen for walks?

Feed the babies their bottles without being propped up with rags?

Hand out fruit? Play the judge? Take them out?

Sit with them when they are sad and down on the world or sick?

Laugh with them and be silly?

 Make them feel special on their birthdays?

Catch them when they fall?

I will not say goodbye to these children. As Peter Pan says  "Never say good bye because goodbye means going away, and going away means forgetting". I could never forget any of these children and this experience.

It's not going to be a good bye, but a see you later......

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mot, Hai, Ba YO!

I could have been in a Greek village instead of Vietnam.The similarities between my culture and theirs hit me in the face today.....
My boss invites me to a wedding. "Whose wedding", I ask? 
"My younger sisters husband sister in law's, brothers cousin". Right!

I tried to oppose however was met with adamant "yes yes yes you must come....."
Me: "No thank you for the invite, I have many things to do".
Boss: "Ok! We shall pick you up at 11am".
I arrive at this wedding and I start to feel a little used as my boss takes me by the arm and shows me off like a prized possession. I enter the hall and all eyes are on me. Conversations cease, I can hear chopsticks being put down and see people nudging the person next to them and gesturing in my direction.
I smile politely and nod my head as I walk up the stairs and greet the bride and grooms parents. I pass on my congratulations as they giggle at my Vietnamese attempt.
As you enter a wedding here, they have the envelopes on a table where you put your money in, write your name and off you go. We don't bother with cards and greetings here! 
As in true Vietnamese style and keeping up with having no privacy here, everyone continues to stare as I take out my purse to put my gift in the envelope. Some have no shame and even get up from their tables and come right up to me to inspect. The video man even turns his bright light and camera on me..... Oh Jesus.....
I felt like everyone was holding their breath to see if I gave the right amount.... Unbeknownst to them I have been here a year and have been to a few other weddings. I was also warned by my best friend Mrs Hanh. Vietnamese people generally give 200,000 VND. About $10. Since I am a foreigner I would be expected to give at least 500,000VND. About $25. Apparently every foreigner has money and is rich you see.
A collective exhale was heard around the hall which I took as a sign of approval at my gift. Eating, chatter and organised chaos resumed at this point.
Being the only white person amongst 500 Vietnamese locals earned me a superior status. I was walked down to the front of the hall and was seated at the table with all the guests of honour.... Bride and grooms parents, grandparents and the like. My protests fell on deaf ears. 
I find the Vietnamese are so hospitable and generous sometimes that it is suffocating. 'No' does not exist in their vocab and it did not matter how many times I said I didn't like it, I am allergic ( a lie which didn't work either) or just plain old I don't want any! I was going to get it so that little voice inside me told me to quit my whingeing and deal.
I was forced to drink beer. And a lot of it. I didn't want to seem rude, I am sure I seemed rude enough by protesting at all. I figured I would just sip it but no luck. Every time someone takes a sip of their beer, they cheer. So I was sipping every 20 seconds. 'Mot, hai, ba, YO!' 1,2,3 YO as the cheers goes. As soon as there was even a remote empty space in my glass, it was topped up.
The entire menu was food I did not eat. Fish, duck, prawns.... I thought I could just eat the vegetables but alas I was too slow and they had poured half a cup of chilli onto it before I could take any. Chilli and I are not friends.

They kept piling my bowl up with food and would then wait and watch my reaction.... Talk about being on show. The worlds fussiest eater being watched. I wanted to cry, chuck a tantrum and throw my food on the floor. Throw my food on the floor was exactly what I did. Before you all judge, let me tell you that throwing your food on the floor is allowed here! Yep. Finished with the bones from the chicken wing? Just throw it on the floor. Bad veggie? throw it on the floor. Bits of square paper used to wipe your fingers? No problem! Add it to the pile on the floor. So when the were busy sculling beer I would throw my food on the floor! Mwahahahaha!!!!!!
After the bride and groom walk in..... Which happened to a YANNI composition (I got so excited!) they eat and the entertainment is..... Karaoke of course! I drew the line at being forced to sing, by this stage I didn't care how rude I seemed!
I have written about weddings and what they are like in a previous email/blog so I won't harp on to much.

I love how people are so giving and generous here. Even when they don't have much for themselves, they go above and beyond to help and be hospitable.
Mrs Hanh, whom I do not think I would have survived here or achieved so much without her is one of these people. I joke with others she must be the underground mafia of Tam Ky.... Anything you need or want or have to find, she knows someone who has it/ can do it for you.

Having lost her job last month and her husband having to pull double shifts now to make ends meet, she still goes out of her way to make sure I am ok.
I see her as a friend yet also a mother figure. It's weird cos she is only one year older (and shorter!) than me but fusses about so much for me that she does mother me! She forces me to go to her humble home every day and eat. And if I don't cos I can't be bothered biking over to hers? I hear her little motorbike and horn coming up to my front gate with a home delivery. She may not have a lot of material wealth but she is wealthy in generosity. I have been really fortunate to meet many wonderful people here.... All who have fussed about me in their own way!As suffocating as it is sometimes..... I am still very grateful to all these people!!!!

"Gentleness, self sacrifice and generosity are the exclusive possession of no one race or religion"  Gandhi.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I can feel the love...

Returning after a break and walking quietly through the gates waiting to see who will spot me first...
It didn't take very long and pretty soon all you could hear was "Anna, Anna, Anna!" going through the orphanage like an echo.
Even little Huy who is 2 years old, ran all the way from across the yard with arms wide open to give me a hug.
Some of the children were at school, so as they returned I waited at the front gate for them...... I cannot describe the feeling I got from them, just watching them run along the dirt path towards me yelling my name, with huge grins upon their faces......
The boys were funny and would run right up to me, but as they reached me, would stop. And then just smile and give me a high five. Too cool and too old for cuddles!

The joy I get from these children..... I cannot begin to explain. Upon seeing them, I felt like I was holding my breath for the last 3 weeks whilst away and now that I was back with them, I gave a huge exhale and was able to use both my lungs to breathe.....