“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).

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One Response to ““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.””

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Live the high life! Be a volunteer! « EthnoSense - May 1, 2011

    […] -Huong V GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "education"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "technology"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_below_post"); […]

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