Archive | April, 2011

“Hi, my name is Huong. I’m a privileged princess and I’m here to do volunteer work. It’s lovely to meet you all.”

30 Apr

Xin chao, minh ten la Huong. Minh la Uc goc Viet. Minh la tinh nguyen vien va minh rat vui de gap moi nguoi hom nay.”

The first quote is what people heard.

The second quote is what I actually said.

Hi, my name is Huong. I am Australian with Vietnamese heritage. I’m a volunteer and it’s lovely to meet you all.

So began my 12 months’ volunteer assignment in Hanoi, Vietnam. I would proceed to introduce myself thus and receive the same reactions in people’s faces: Ahhh…she’s a privileged princess. She’s got so much money that she can come here to do work for free. So she lives in Australia. And her parents are Vietnamese. She is Viet kieu. Her parents are traitors of the motherland. They must have abandoned us during the American War. She is the daughter of traitors.

Viet kieu‘. A pronoun to describe people of Vietnamese heritage who live in another country. Vietnamese expatriates. It originated as a derogatory term and has now entered into common parlance and is socially acceptable. In my knowledge, Vietnamese is one of the few languages that has developed such a term to distinguish and discriminate against their own expatriates. My manager at work sometimes introduced me as Viet kieu in a matter-of-fact way. It offends me, however, due to its derogatory origins. But I lived with it.

Perhaps you may think that I’m being harsh. However, I found increasingly that when people approached me, their lines of questioning headed towards the direction of my parents’ betrayal of Vietnam. I entered a highly charged political space which I could not avoid. I read a quote recently that went along the lines of: The best way around it is through. So I went through.

Let me begin from the beginning (of sorts).

I was volunteering in my hometown of Sydney after completing a double Arts/Law degree. I found out about a volunteer program for young professionals to contribute to capacity-building programs overseas. This one attracted me because it was for young people with particular sets of skills transferring those skills in partnership with others. I applied and after a lengthy process, found myself at the week-long pre-departure training course. Three weeks later, I arrived in Hanoi with seven others.

It was mid-summer. July 2009.

I don’t think I was starry-eyed; nor did I have unrealistic expectations of the wonders of foreign aid and the transformative change I would instigate. I’d learnt about the pitfalls of aid during uni, had done community-based volunteer work for a number of years in Australia, received training on managing my expectations of ‘making a difference’ and had a good group of fellow volunteers in Hanoi who were level-headed and pragmatic. In addition, my mum reminded me that the Vietnamese will resent me for being Viet Kieu.

Despite all this, of course, there were challenges expected and unexpected, simple and complex, resolvable and unresolvable. And I was up for the challenge of meeting those challenges. I went through that challenge (with varying levels of success).

Homeless in Harvard

29 Apr

Who has seen Legally Blonde? All of you? Good! Do you remember this image of Harvard’s red brick buildings and its prestigious…lawns? Yes? Good no.2.Well, I’ll get to that later…

I am in a very “returned from volunteering” type of mood right now, which is lucky for anyone who wants to think about returning from volunteering, because I am meant to be studying right now
but I’ll return to that later as well I guess…

I wanted to mention a bit of a culture shock for me…or maybe more shocking for the people witnessing…especially my brother.

In 2008 I travelled to Guyana where I worked for 3 months. Now can I just say that regardless of what Lonely Planet says (Lonely Planet is mainly nonsense with fancy photography…and I once saw in a Lonely planet yearbook – I think it was 2010 – that Afghanistan was characterised by its amazing history and Guyana by its horrible crime)…Guyana is a beautiful country swept up in a swathe of Amazonian amazements, a scent of Caribbean Carnivale, and the taste of sweet cocunut bread…

I loved it there and will be talking about its wishful wonders washed up in a whirlwind of history more down the track (note: that was an alluring grab so that you keep reading my posts!).

But what I wanted to mention is what I did straight after Guyana.

After 3 months in Guyana, I was wisked off to New York (this should be sung like Alicia Keys does btw), Chicago (A tourist’s delight in the Summer: think Gotham city, but in the Summertime with so many free music and arts festivals that I think even the hippies had to stop smoking just to keep up)…and finally to meet my brother in Boston…here’s where the Harvard thing comes in…

Now, not only was I massively culture shocked by Chicago (but made some great friends who took me to CHURCH! – think of Big Mama’s House if you can – Evanglical churches on the South Side that reminded me a lot of Guyana) but I was trying to bring a lot of my lifestyle from Guyana into CHicago…namely, being a little dirtier than normal and walking barefoot…or in thongs at most – at this point I did not owne shoes…

This was a bit of a shock to my half-brother. He is the brains of the bunch and is studying at Harvard. I thought it would be great to stay with him for a week. So did he…

that was until he saw me from across Harvard’s prestigious lawn. Barefoot, and a little dirtier and the rest.

I hadn’t seen my brother for about 4 years, and I think in that moment, he wished it could have been 4 more…

but we ended up having a great time…even though he still and always will think I am weird…

However, all the while I couldn’t help thinking…that the grass beneath my feet was so finely cut, that it barely felt like grass at all. It was greener than the imagined colour green. And it smelled so full of grass and nothing of dirt. It is a truely beautiful lawn…

But I couldn’t help thinking that if the amount of money that went into Harvard’s prestigious lawns went into helping a homeless friend I made on the lawn that day…or even was redistributed back into some of the Guyanese communities I had just come from….maybe people would think that was even more beautiful than clean grass…

A response to Honey Ants and Chip Packets

29 Apr

Palm Valley - the kids call this place Puerta nemo (it means Nemo rock)

They say you can never really go somewhere
you always leave part of yourself here
Have you ever been to Central Australia?
I think that’s a place
that left itself
somewhere long ago,
before the new people brought themselves there
and tried to make it
part of here
They shouldn’t really call
it Australia up there.
Not if they call it Australia
down here.
It is this country’s heart,
but we have cut it off from the rest of the body
it beats now
only for its soul
and the spirits that still
sit and sing
in the sand.
It still beats. But now, and for such a long time
it beats alone

like a bone that has split amongst the sand
It has lost what keeps it all together
and keeps it together
with us.

some white people
in black suits
might not think so…
but they might not
what they think they know
and might not i
white as any other you’d find
but not one to pretend
I can take a place away from its heart
and just put its heart
back in.

I remember when I first returned from Ntaria, the plane ride home was one of the scariest experiences of my life. I had spent 3 months in Ntaria, only going into Alice Springs for about 1 hour every 2 weeks for food, because as Im sure you know (and we should probably talk about on this blog) the food available in supermarkets in remote communities in Central Aus is ridiculously expensive and horribly bad quality.

But I remember the plane ride home vividly. As we flew back over Sydney, and I saw all the houses and built up buildings so close together. As I swooped over the highways and city streets. As we glided over residential pools and excessive excuses of money spent and wasted on luxuries for personal use…I wanted to turn the plane around

I was so scared to be back in a society like this. I had grown old in Ntaria and was an old man flying into a different universe. I so craved the taste of dry open red dirt flung against my lips and flies against my eyes.

I never felt like that before. In all the places I had travelled, I had never been so ashamed to return home.

Cramped Quarters & Community Spirit

29 Apr

I find myself doing a strange thing ever since coming back from my volunteer expedition to the Philippines during January and February of 2010. Every time I enter a new house, I silently evaluate how many Filipino families could squeeze themselves into the space.

It’s bizarre. But every time I calculate a realistic number, it really hits home how lucky I (and almost every person from a developed country) am.

It started with my family home. It’s a two-storey country home complete with 3 regular bedrooms, a large kitchen with an attached dining room, a living room, a bathroom, a laundry and a large space downstairs which is inhabited by my brother. At one time, my entire family of 6 members lived there. Now, it only has 2 people living in it year round; with me making appearances in the uni holidays. I’ve come to the conclusion that 6 Filipino families (consisting of 3-8 members) could comfortably live in my family home.

From there it has spiralled to the point that I’m making these rough calculations all the time. My semester share-house could fit 7 Filipino families; my oldest brother’s home, 4; my dad’s home, also 4; my good friend’s home, 6; another friend’s home, 7. I could go on. And on. And on.

All of this came from my brief home-stay with a small family in Manila’s slums. I counted myself lucky as the place where I stayed only had 3 adults and 2 small children living in it. For some of my fellow volunteers this number was higher. The home I stayed in consisted of 2 clearly defined spaces: one was a small shop, dining room and kitchen (including a cupboard where one of the adults, who I don’t think was related to the other inhabitants, seemingly slept); the other was a lounge room and bedroom for the mother, father and two sons to sleep and rest in. (Both of these areas added together were probably not much bigger than my entire bedroom.) Their bathroom was outside and was a small shed with the bowl of a toilet and a large tub for showering.

my home-stay, a building which did not extend much farther than the parameters of this photo

There was no privacy to speak of. The lights were left on all night, apparently to scare off rats and other rodents. Three fans were on constantly but the house still sweltered in the heat. I learned one night when the power went out that these fans served a purpose other than cooling: cutting out the noises of the slums; the walls were so thin that I could clearly hear (though I couldn’t understand) the conversations of the next door neighbours.

But it’s funny. Even though these facts are always in my mind and are constantly making me re-evaluate my surroundings: I don’t mention these whenever I am asked about my home-stay experience. Whenever I speak of my experiences I always make a point of saying that the slum I stayed in had a stronger community spirit than any other place I’ve encountered. It was only recently that someone asked me why I thought that. After a moment of thinking I answered, “They have nothing. So they share everything.” It’s an oversimplification of the situation but I think it’s one of the best explanations that I’ve ever come up with.

So every time I enter a house, two opposing thoughts battle it out inside my head. On the one hand, I am infinitely grateful for the space, privacy and general quality of the homes that I reside in. On the other, I cannot help but feel that – somewhere along the way – we Australians have lost the intimate sense of community that still exists in the slums of the Filipino capital.

Soccer with the Locals

28 Apr

One of my fondest memories of volunteering with Peru’s Challenge was playing soccer with the men of the village. We had a 3 week tournament and it was intense. Firstly, we were playing at a high altitude and secondly, these men were solid. The men we versed were the builders and construction dudes who seemingly did not sleep or rest. They were on site hammering away well before we arrived and they were still building when it was our home time. They are the hardest working people that I know. A friendly game of soccer was no different. They were as tenacious on the field as they were with wheelbarrows and shovels.

Our team consisted of 19 Macquarie university students, all of which had moderate experience in football. We constantly needed to sub every 5 minutes because running was laborious on that mountain. The men of Quilla Huata played the whole time, never even stopping for water. They were like macho men robots. Of course, they were acclimatised but they were still fit fit fit despite being well into their 50+ age bracket apart from a few younger guys.

They had such a great joy when they were playing, often yelling to each other in Spanish, an advantage they had because the rest of my peers never understood what they were saying. The first game we won and the second game they won so the last game was interesting. With an onlooking crowd comprising of village kids, mums and Mac students, the game began with the usual formalities of playful threats and awkward stretching to get the muscles working. So when the ball was in motion, the whole world stopped and watched on. By this point, us Mac players were getting fitter and were pretty used to the altitude therefore the game was evened out. As a result, the ball enjoyed being kicked to and fro without any real purpose.

We kicked, then they defended, then they kicked and we defended and so forth. Despite the repetition, the game was really engaging. There were no lukewarm players on the field that day. Everyone ran their money’s worth. It was fun. At the end, we ended up winning but I secretly think that they let us win. But I guess I will never really know.

I loved engaging with the community in a different way like soccer. It was something that we loved and something that they loved and it bought us together. We all got jerseys made for our team and on our last day, we presented them with their own personalised ones too. They loved it and smiled their gap toothed smile as a way of thanks.

Gearing up before our first game

And we're in play!

unwarranted fame

28 Apr

I was warned that when I would go to the schools, the kids would stare and want to take photos, but it would not prepare my for the onslaught of attention, the kids climbing the barred windows, asking for autographs (!) and all trying to touch me.

At first I was moved, it was incredible, all these smiling curious faces, and then it was fun – and after a while, I felt numb to it.

Yes I’m white, no if you use the soap I use your skin wont look like this (a serious Q), no I’m not married and don’t want to be anytime soon… but as soon as I realised that I was de-sensitising through repetition, I gave myself a good slap in the face and rememebered that for each school and each kid (in some cases) – I was the first foreigner they’d seen, I was like an ambasador. So I got my act together and smiled and reconnected in a more meaningful way.

Delights and Dilemmas – the Journey Begins!

27 Apr

Having just returned from my third visit to Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in remote WA, the delights and dilemmas of cultural convergence are fresh in my mind. In my final year of a Development Studies and Culture Change degree (a rather exotic name for a fairly generic Arts course) this idea of cross-cultural interaction still perplexes me.

I first entered the volunteer world as wary gap-year student, searching for that ‘life-changing-career-deciding’ package deal. It presented itself as a 3 month stint in Vietnam working with young children – fine, perfect, that’ll do. Four years on, and several cross-cultural experiences later, I’ve realised that those life changes and career decisions do not come as instant revelations but emerge as an ongoing, internal dialogue.

After travelling extensively both as a volunteer and tourist I can happily say that every new place challenges me in different ways, alters my aspirations, and undoubtedly adds confusion to my life! And I wouldn’t have it any other way. While returning to ‘normality’ is inevitable it is surprising how often a fleeting sight, sound or smell can transport you back to those funny, temporary worlds and reveal a tasty morsel of insight…

Was it fate?

26 Apr

I’m one of those people who has the annoying habit of forever looking back and thinking ‘What if…?’ I spend a lot of time thinking about my trip to Hanoi in this context. Originally I was meant to be travelling to Nepal to do some volunteer work but ended up changing my mind because at the time there was a lot of violent protests happening and it wasn’t very safe for foreigners to be there. So I just picked Vietnam. No clue why. Just grabbed at it. I often think about that random decision and why I chose to travel somewhere I had previously had no interest in.

Another big decision I made was to change my plans and stay in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, rather than out in the suburbs where Morning Star centre was located. This choice haunts me a bit when I talk to other volunteers and travellers because I feel I took the ‘easy way out’ and this often leaves me embarrassed and ashamed. After spending my first few days in the Old Quarter (the centre of Hanoi, also the main tourist hub) I moved into a hotel in the suburbs. I lasted a week. And yeah, this is embarrassing. I was uncomfortable, nobody spoke english, there were constant power cuts. In the Old Quarter I knew where I was going, I could talk to people, and I felt safe. So I moved back.

In hindsight, I don’t regret this decision. Living in the Old Quarter for three months I made some amazing friends, experienced out of this world events, and really broadened my mind in a way I think living in the suburbs would not have allowed me to. But still I often think about it. Would my experience have been more ‘authentic’ if I had been away from the tourists? Would I have had a better experience, perhaps a more worthwhile one? I will never know. But I’ll definitely keep thinking on it.

Reasons Why

26 Apr

I kind of realized that I might gave this series of blogs a wrong start. If you are reflecting on a volunteer experience why not start in the beginning: Why did you go in the first place? Some of you already wrote about this, but here is what I think are my reasons:

Before I left to Guatemala I dropped out of university. I hated what I studied, didn’t know what to do and it didn’t took long before I gave up my (boring) job at an event management company to leave Europe to do some voluntary work.

If I’m really honest, I think I went to Guatemala to leave all the problems at home behind for a while. I didn’t go to help people, I went to help myself. It was sort of an attempt to sort my life out, to place myself out of the context of normal life in order to try to find a new direction. It worked: I think I did got a better understanding of the world, a better understanding of myself, and I’m back in university, so a new direction in the end.

Satisfying a selfish need by an unselfish act. Is there anything wrong with mutual benefit? I think there are always more reasons why you do things. If I would not have enjoyed teaching english then I would have quit. The reason why I left Holland was not the same as the reason why I went to my little english school everyday. While being abroad I didn’t thought about my life back home at all, it fell into place only when I returned.

And now I’m back and I wonder what happened to the kids I taught? I look back on it as a fantastic experience, but I can only hope that I really taught this kids something that will help them create a better future.

PS: When writing, I realized that I didn’t only taught the kids english, but I also implicitly taught them something about social hierarchies. Just by being there, I taught them (and learned myself) about an unfair world in which there are young people from far away who have the money to do nothing for a while and come over to teach them. I don’t know if I like that, but yeah they were bound to find out anyways.

The picture below shows one of the kids I taught. They were all very fond of our mobile phones, willing to pictures all the time. Never thought about it that way, but in some way I was an ambassador of the capitalist dream 🙂

The difficulty of basic functioning

24 Apr

At first it was so hard because every – otherwise passive – basic function or daily task was now suddenly active, and often quite difficult.

Walking (watch out for dog, rubbish, gravel pile, sand patch, old lady, scooter, cow, rubbish, drain, cow crap, goat….), Breathing (waaah what the hellllll was that, I think I’m dying! then often followed by having gone to heaven with some of the most delightful and incredible scents in the world), eating (How? fingers, nails, palm, inability to multitask, tearing naan with three fingers, eating so slowly my fingertips burned with spices and looked like I’d sat in the bath for half an hour too long), drinking (do not drink the water is all I can say), going to the toilet… 

So to get through a day in one piece, to even walk to work was an achievement of sorts. My sensitivity was heightened and basic functioning had become something that needed to be accomplished.

It is little wonder that in our non-working time, there was a struggle to muster the energy (courage?) needed to ‘explore’ when it was so unfamiliar, and at times so difficult.

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