Archive for the ‘My heart cracks open’ Category

Whew, finished my first week of volunteering at Tam Ky in Central Vietnam, one hour from Danang. My mother is from a small village near Tam Ky and it feels like coming home. Everyone greets me like a long lost sister, daughter, granddaughter, cousin, or friend. I meet people everywhere and they are hungry to learn more about me, practice their English and laugh at my Vietnamese accent.

The program is organized through the Global Volunteer Network (www.globalvolunteernetwork.org) and they’ve been operating in Vietnam since 2004. Currently, six volunteers live in a five bedroom and three bathroom house. We have an amazing cook (I’m definitely going to gain weight), housekeeper, driver and manager. The other volunteers are from Australia, Canada and the United States and it‘s a great group of people ranging from 20 to 56 years old.

We arrive at the beginning of a long weekend, and on our first night go dancing. There are three levels of music and we bypass the deafening disco in favor of the open-air rooftop. Everyone is dressed up and dancing to the cha cha cha, tango and meringue. All couples, mostly women dancing together. Two sisters ask me and my friend to dance. Within moments, I’m dirty dancing with Vietnamese women and laughing hysterically. It’s my first night in my mother’s home province and it’s already come to this!

Many times a day I meet people and they ask me the obligatory questions: “What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Are you married?” It’s impossible to come out to people dozens of times a day, so my standard response to the married question is a truthful “no.” The correct answer in Vietnam is “not yet,” since it assumes marriage in the future. They reply with a question, “Not yet?” and I keep saying no and we laugh for awhile. After I’ve met someone more than once and they ask me a second time why I’m not married, then I usually tell them I’m a lesbian (or rather I don’t have a girlfriend, girl-girl, I like girls), there is a lot of laughter, they think I’m kidding, more laughter until they realize I’m being serious. Then one of two things happens: they want to set me up or ask me many questions. One friend wanted to set me up with the sister I danced with who is obviously straight. She came to visit the house and later, my friend told me the sister is a lesbian. I was really surprised and when pressed my friend said that the sister had given up men and ready to try women – NOT THE SAME THING! The questions are amusing and sweet, although sometimes strange. Last weekend, I had some interesting discussions that ranged from hermaphrodites, going to Thailand for sex change operations, and the increase of gay teenagers in Vietnam.

Our first weekend we spend at Tam Tanh, a rural fishing village near Tam Ky. There are no other foreigners in Tam Tanh, and the beach is filled with locals due to a long holiday weekend. We sit under tents in lounge chairs steps from the surf. It takes us a few hours to realize the chairs are designed for two people, while we are occupying one each (big foreigners!). Beach vendors approach us every few minutes, and we buy peanuts, quail eggs, shrimp chips, water, and clams. Coincidentally, we also teach an English class in Tam Tanh twice a week and the volunteers recognize some of the beach vendors as their students. One of the girls tells us she is 10 years old and we are amazed since she is so tall. We keep exclaiming our surprise, and she finally acquiesces and tells us she is really 14. It’s better for business if people think she is young and cute. I fall in love with three of the girls and we spend many hours taking photos, listening to my ipod, playing with my sunglasses and laughing. They call me Co Xuan (Aunt Xuan) and I am amazed by their humor, tenacity, maturity and youth. A few days later we return to Tam Thanh to teach English and I’m excited to see the girls again. However, they aren’t in class – probably still working on the beach to make money for their families and school fees.

There are three volunteer shifts on most weekdays, and the other placements include two orphanages and a disabled hospital for children. One of the orphanages is for 45 younger children from newborn to 11 years old. The other orphanage is for 35 older children ages three to 18 years old, and mostly street children. As soon as volunteers arrive at the orphanages, the children run up and hug and jump on us. We all form immediate attachments, the volunteers are attached to the kids and vice versa. My days are spent with the babies, providing basic love and attention, changing diapers, and helping with physical therapy. I also teach a basic English class to 5 and 6 year olds, and play games/activities with the older children. There is never a dull moment and my heart instantly opens up to these children.

Shameless fundraising pitch: I’m still accepting donations for Vietnam and will get an email notification after you’ve made a donation. Go to www.paypal.com. Go to personal / send money / send money online. To: annexuan@gmail.com / personal gift.

To give you some perspective, below are the ongoing monthly expenses that volunteers are asked to help support:
  • Breakfast for 37 children at the orphanage = $157
  • Nurse’s salary at the orphanage for 45 children = $105
  • School fees for education for 5 children at orphanage = $79
  • Monthly feast (big dinner once a month at orphanage) = $42
  • Fruit for 45 children/babies at the orphanage = $32
  • Fruit for 40 children for English class in fishing village = $25
  • Teaching supplies, toothpaste, soap, baby wipes for 45 children/babies at the orphanage = $26
  • Medicine and vitamins for 45 children/babies at the orphanage = $29

My thanks to everyone who has already donated. A small amount of money can go a really long way in Vietnam!

Annie and Kim with the girls of Tam Thanh
Annie and a 71-year old proud fisherman at Tam Thanh, Vietnam

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