Archive for August, 2012

Lucky, lucky, lucky

In 2010, I volunteered at several orphanages in Vietnam, including Tam Ky, located in my mother’s home province of Quang Nam in Central Vietnam. Shortly after I left one of the orphanages, 14 families from Spain arrived and adopted all of the babies. My Vietnamese-Australian friend, Tiffany, has stayed in touch with many of these families over the past two years and invited me to join her in Spain to visit the families this summer. She even offered to pay for most of my expenses, so I readily agree to her generous offer.

The journey from Bali to Barcelona takes 34 hours, with layovers in Kuala Lumpur (where I meet Tiffany), Bangkok and Cairo. When we land in Barcelona, we are so exhausted that we sleep through our first night in Spain, even though we only intend a short afternoon siesta.

Barcelona is a far-cry from Borneo and Bali, and I relish the clean, silent streets, although I miss falling asleep to the sound of frogs croaking and waking up to roosters crowing. Tiffany treats us to a sumptuous 8-course tasting menu. The restaurant is so fancy that we ring a doorbell to get buzzed into the secure dining room. When Tiffany leaves the table, a waiter immediately appears and folds up her napkin without touching it, using two spoons and two forks in a hilarious display of service. She stops eating after 4 ½ courses so I wind up eating a staggering 11 ½ courses and savor every bite! I’m just amazed by the contrasts in my life since days ago I was using squat toilets and bathing in dirty river water.

Our next stop is Zaragoza, Spain to meet four families with adopted Vietnamese children. On the train ride, I’m suddenly stunned by the significance of our trip and overwhelmed with emotions. I feel quite nervous as we walk towards the Old Square, and spot the first family. We hug and kiss the parents and their three-year old daughter. She is a bit shy at first, but Tiffany bribes her with chocolate and lipstick, and I play tag and peek-a-boo. Soon she is holding our hand and sitting on our lap, just like the little baby we had embraced two years ago in Vietnam. My Spanish is limited, as is their English, and we communicate through basic words and the handy use of an Iphone app translator. The father thanks me for taking care of his daughter before they adopted her. I quickly reply, “De nada (you’re welcome).” But he stops me before I can shrug it off and looks at me deeply, “No really, thank you so much.” I get a bit weepy, the first of many teary moments.

The parents are hungry for information about their children. What was their life like at the orphanage? Who were their birth parents and why were they given up for adoption? Did they have health problems? What were they like as babies? Tiffany volunteered for three months at the orphanage, and has some information to share with the parents. My mother is from the region, so I know what life would be like if they had remained in the orphanage. I wish we could provide more, but the parents are grateful for any information, since they only received the clothes on the babies’ backs and the official paperwork, nothing about their children’s health or history.

We spend two days with four families in Zaragoza, several of them driving long distances to meet with us. They are so grateful to the volunteers who loved their children before their adoption. I feel incredibly blessed to be able to meet them and get a glimpse of their life in Spain. The parents absolutely adore their children. Of course, all parents love their children; but these parents seem particularly loving and doting. They even dress their children like themselves!

After Zaragoza, we take a night train to Leon and another family meets us at the train station at 6am. He asks us if we are tired, and I lie and tell him no, because I know he is anxious to talk to us about his daughter. We only have 24 hours in Leon and are meeting with three families, so every minute is packed with activities. We arrive at their home, and I’m delighted to be assigned to the daughter’s bedroom. She was my favorite baby girl in the orphanage, and I’ve often wondered about her fate.

All of the parents have waited many years to adopt their children. Their voices sometimes choke with emotion, describing the bureaucracy with agencies and the Spanish government, paperwork, endless waiting and anxiety, until they suddenly receive a phone call and must immediately schedule the long trip to Vietnam and pick up their children. Our host shares the video of the first time they see their children at the orphanage, immediately recognizable from the one photo they have received and probably looked at a thousand times before their trip. The parents hold on to their babies so tightly and look like they never want to let them go. At the orphanage, babies sleep on wooden slat beds with a bamboo mat. Several parents tell us that on the first night in the hotel, the babies constantly stroked the mattresses and sheets, simply relishing the softness.

There is a big joke about birthdays. In Vietnam, birthdays are not significant like in the United States or Europe. During the war, papers are lost or changed and many people change their birthdays when they emigrate to the United States. At the orphanage, they don’t know the real birthdays of the children and randomly assign them a birthday based on their general appearance. The parents look a bit horrified at first, but then I tell them my mother and brothers (all born in Vietnam) don’t know their real birthdays either! Is my brother really a Scorpio, who knows?

What I do know is that everyone in this equation is incredibly lucky. The children are fortunate to be raised in loving households, and have opportunities they never would have received in Vietnam. The parents feel incredibly blessed to have perfect and adorable children that fill their lives with joy. And I am just a bystander with a big smile stretched across my face, awestruck to witness the transformation in these children and families’ lives.









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