“How did you go?” is the question I’ve been most asked since I completed my far-too-short stint, volunteering at the orphanage and charity school in Nha Trang.
Actually, it was more of a “how did you go?”, with emphasis on the you. Because the people who ask know what I’m like and how much of an impact environments like this can have on me.
My first response to the previous statement is that I’m in a ridiculously and relatively good place, so going to my room and having a big cry at the injustices of the world seems like a rather silly thing to do.
Also, because I know how much I can be impacted, I have learned the ability to ‘switch off’. The moment I walked through the swastika and lotus flower adorned gates of the pagoda, I was overwhelmed by the energy of the place.
For me, it feels like I’ve been taken down from the behind the knees, and I’m overcome with a desire to cry. I am saturated with these feels.
You know that feeling? Where your eyes well up and you just want to sob, but for no explicable reason? Or is that just me.
It’s at these moments I know I have to get a grip and that, perhaps, collapsing in the courtyard and crying like a spoilt brat probably isn’t the aim of the mission. I have taught myself to switch off, so that I can do do what is needed.
There are downsides to this. One is that I can come across as uncaring and unfeeling. It has been stated to me more than once, when I am on this verge of overwhelm that I “don’t seem to care much” – quite possibly also one of the most upsetting things to say to me. I care too much, and it’s a protective thing.
The other is that I don’t get to fully experience the fun and happiness. You can’t, I have discovered, prevent yourself from feeling pain and sadness without also diluting the fun and happy. The tap is on, or it’s off – no getting the good feels without the ones we’d prefer to avoid.
Which has moments of suckiness, but I get it.
It was, ultimately, an amazing experience. My expectations were challenged significantly, but not in the way I expected.
I had anticipated much, much worse that what I saw and experienced. Although aware of the work and improvements that have gone into the pagoda itself, the charity school classrooms, and the food and services available to all the permanent residents (the nuns and orphans) and others such as the charity school students and teachers, I had expected more dirt, perhaps more disease, uncleanliness … more, I guess, devastation.
I had expected to be more confronted than I was.
Not discounting the fact that I tend to turn off those parts of my brain, it was clean and tidy, the kids were relatively healthy (under the circumstances), happy and well, engaging and energetic.
Does that sound judgey on some level?
It’s not intended to be. It’s just that I’ve never been to anything like this before, and my only frame of reference I had is what we see in the media and in movies, TV and magazine advertising, and our own, ignorant imaginations.
When I as asked how many I wanted to take home with me, to take them away from the injustice and harshness of the world, I can honestly, hand on heart say “none”.
Because I could see that those who are orphans where in a place where they were safe, happy, and healthy. They are well cared for, they are fed and sheltered. Most importantly, they have community, a village to support them – and they are loved. Very much so.
They may not have the running water or gas stoves or playground equipment that isn’t too high, built atop a rubberised surface, but it didn’t matter.
This was probably what stood out for me the most – the pity and commiseration about what the kids were missing out on. The reality is, however, that many of them weren’t even aware that they were missing out on anything!
They were doing their normal.
Personally, I believe and have done so for a long time, is that we (in our white, middle class lives) generally apply our own experiences and expectations on others, without any level of attempt to understand, much less empathise.
We claim to try to put ourselves in the shoes of others. What we do, though, is take our own, personal beliefs and values with us, and are incapable of really getting it.
Of course, from our middle class towers, we wouldn’t be putting on the shoes of others, as it would likely require some sort of bureaucratic sign off and / or parental permission, and there’s also a very minimal risk of some sort of health and safety something so … no, we won’t be putting other people’s shoes on.
But make sure you wash your hands with warm water and antibacterial soap because you thought about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
There was so much, so so much, that I learnt from this experience and very little of it was what I had expected, and what others also expected I’d experience. I can’t put into words all that I gained from it.
What I witnessed most, however, is that whilst we have so much more than these kids did; meals three times a day, a warm bed with a mattress, not just a mat to sleep on, ‘safe’ playgrounds in schools etc, we don’t have many of the things these kids do have.
I can’t help but wonder, either, how much of the same is happening in a country like Australia that we don’t know about.
I heard the story of a three year old boy, his first day at the charity school, who will be a permanent resident (and, therefore, orphan) of the pagoda if they can’t find a permanent home for him. His current carer is an elderly lady who is rapidly becoming unable to care for herself, much less a pre-schooler – and she is his carer because she found him as a baby in a cardboard box in the rubbish, as she was scrounging for items she could recycle or sell, in order to feed herself.
She took him home and has cared for him as her own since then.
No authorities, no bureaucracy, no paperwork involved.
Would this happen in our country? Would someone just find a baby in a cardboard box and simply care for them? And if they did, what would happen if they were found out?
Aside from it becoming the Story (and possibly outrage from one side or the other) of the Moment, a media fuelled debate until the next thing comes along.
I can’t help but think that all the stories I heard – the hours old baby with no arms left at the pagoda gates, a week old baby, with no discernible “disabilities” left in a basket for the nuns, children not picked up from the school, nor taken home after the weekly religious meeting – I can’t help but think that this goes on all over the world, including in first world countries.
We never hear of it … does it simply not happen in Australia? Or is it kept from us?
Not that it matters, per se, and I’m not suggesting that if it happens here it is more or less important – nothing like that. I’m just curious, and not yet ready to consider it in any detail. Mostly due to my ignorance about it all. I don’t have the information and the answers to my bazillion questions.
Therefore, I refuse to speculate …
Insofar as my Phamily Voliday – so named because I volunteered with Phamily Foundation, and I used my work-provided Volunteer Day and annul leave for a volunteering-holiday (voliday – see what my work colleague did there? Lena gets all the credit for that one :)) – I was highly confronted, but not in the way I had expected. Which made it more confronting than had it been that which I had expected to be confronted with, to be honest.
I had a laugh, I experienced a community of love and compassion, and learned that kids are exactly the same, no matter their race, religion, country of origin, or socio-economic status.
I learned that many of us are filled with compassion and care – but also an ignorance that means the help we want to provide is often misguided. This is not a judgement or criticism (surely my confession that my expectations were so significantly out of whack with reality is testament to this), merely an observation. Not wrong. We can only form our expectations based on waht we know, and what we are told.
I also learned a lot more about myself.
But I’ve probably bored you enough now with this rambling.
Maybe you’d just like to look at some pictures instead (I know I would).