Tag Archives: Identity

Pangs of Jealousy

1 Jun


This is my 10th blog on this thing. What have I learned? Do I feel more resolved because of this? In short, lots and yes. I am starting to realise that perspective is everything in development and beyond. It is the reason why volunteers are effective. My experience was both humbling and rewarding. Writing and publishing about my time in Peru has caused me to seriously reflect about what I want the world to know about them and what I did. Of course, in doing so, I hope that others would want to volunteer with Peru’s Challenge one day but I think the reason why I love blogging about it so much is for me. To retrieve my experiences from my brain to something tangible provides a sense of closure. It reminds me that my experience was real.

PACE are sending a new Macquarie Uni group to volunteer at Peru’s Challenge this July. I am really happy for the new volunteers because their lives are going to be changed forever and they are going to have the time of their lives just like me only a few months ago. But in all honesty, I am jealous of the experience they are going to have. I am jealous that they get to see my favourite kids, Cynthia and Doris. I am jealous they get to live in the house that I lived in, surrounded by lush mountains. I am jealous they get to work with Jane and Selvy, the NGO founders, and I am jealous because it’s not me this time around. I know that it should never be about me, but I have realised that those kids mean more to me than I can imagine and they have done more for me, more than I could have ever done for them. Just being around them makes me want to be that little bit better.

The thing I fear the most right now is that the kids will forget us. Or worse, replace us with the new group. I hope they don’t. But if they do, then I pray that all the future volunteers would love these kids the way that they deserve. I hope that these kids would squeal in delight while playing with the new group. I hope that they latch onto the new guys like they did with us. They deserve big brothers and sisters who will lift them up and spin them around. They deserve piggy back rides and hand clap games. They are kids. Sometimes they are forced to grow up a bit faster because they are obliged to look after the family and complete a tonne of chores, but in their heart of hearts, they are just kids.

Pop quiz time!

30 May

Q. What do you do when you return from your volunteering experience overseas?

A. Bore your friends and family with endless stories of your wild adventures and amazing interactions with the locals.

B. Go back to your office job and muse over that hazy, distant dream.

C. Reflect on your amazing experiences and use them as a launch pad for your journeys back home.

D. Become disillusioned and promptly leave the country, bound for more traveling adventures.

I did all of the above, and permutations of combinations in between as well.

As a ‘returned volunteer’, you’re a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit. You generally have to find a spot to fit in, or carve your own spot. I prefer the latter.

Thinking about different worlds, and how people live in such different worlds sometimes does my head in. Sometimes I see the cleaners in my office block, and I remember the maid I had in Vietnam and the wonderful relationship I developed with her.

Some of you out there are understandably thinking, ‘You exploitative pig!’, in response to the fact I had a maid. Sure, I initially was against it. However, it’s a legitimate and respectable occupation, and if I can pay her rather generously for her services, and help her put her daughter through tertiary education (very rare for girls in Vietnam), then I’ll happily do it.

There’s a guy who comes around and waters the many plants in my office block, and tends to them, by wiping them of dust etc. He comes around once every fortnight. I have a bit of a chat with him whenever he’s around. He’s really nice and I’d like to do that job or something like that at one stage in my life. Or a window cleaner of buildings. It’ll be like rock climbing each day. How fun! These individuals have jobs which are a bit out of the ordinary (as compared to office workers).

It reminds me of being a jigsaw piece that doesn’t quite fit.

I recently moved to a new division, new branch, new team in my organisation. Everyone is nice, but I can tell they find it a bit difficult to suss me out. They aren’t sure where or how I fit in the work environment. I need to carve out my own space.

For me, I’m comfortable being an unfitting jigsaw piece. It’s liberating. I have the freedom to dream, to be creative, to determine my own journey. I attribute my older brother and sister as key shapers of this ‘philosophy’.

At the beginning of my final year in high school, they painted a painting for me for my birthday in February. It depicted a hand pushing aside long grass to reveal the sandy shores of a beach with blue, blue sky extending upwards. The words “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” were stretched across the top of the painting.


It was such a strong message of encouragement from both of them, particularly as I was being pressured to embark on certain paths at that point in time. I wasn’t very confident at that point in time either. So that gift was such a force in my final year of high school. I ended up choosing a path in university that I’m very happy with. That message still resonates with me, and was definitely pivotal in my decision to leave Sydney (and family and friends) to volunteer in Vietnam for a year. To leave physical comfort and lack of fulfilment, for physical discomfort and much-needed life-changing and self-shaping experiences and wonderful challenges and opportunities along the way.

Being an unfitting jigsaw piece suits me fine. It’s much more interesting for me that way.

To add or not to add. The Facebook dilemma.

15 May

At the NGO I was volunteering for, three of my workmates were the exact same age as I. During work hours, they would often show each other the texts they’d received on their mobile phones and giggle, run around the office, and generally mix their professional and personal lives. I was rather bemused as they had all received university education and training, yet, their work ethic was foreign to me.

As I mused over this overlap of formal and informal business, I discovered friend requests from those workmates, as well as some other professionals I became acquainted with when I was networking.

My NGO ran workshops and forums for university students. I also received Facebook friend requests from some of those very students.

I did not know whether to accept their requests or not. I had, up until then, kept work separate from my personal life. I had to ask someone who would know what I was going through and provide some of their own insight.

I had befriended a local Vietnamese guy, who had studied in Australia for a period of time, and was heading his own NGO back in Vietnam. He and I got along as we had in common experiences in both Vietnamese and Australian society.

I sent an email to this friend, asking him for some advice as follows:

I wanted to ask your advice on something, and you’re probably the best person to ask. I am hesitant about adding people in Viet Nam on facebook, for example, people related to my work. This is because I want to appear professional, and my facebook is for friends. However, there is a blurry line as to who is related to work and to my social life. I added Jenny, but I feel uncomfortable that she may see my photos and maybe disapprove of what I do in my spare time. I don’t want to seem like a ‘party girl’ or a ‘bad girl’. I think because girls in Viet Nam don’t understand my background that much, then I think that they would judge me differently. Because my lifestyle is quite different from others’ here. I live differently from them while in Viet Nam and also in Australia.

Anyway, I don’t know if I’m making sense. But do you think I should add them on facebook? And if I don’t, then do you think they will be offended?

I would really appreciate your thoughts.”

His response was:

Regarding the facebook thing ,it is a fine line between work and social life in Vietnam (as you can see from your organisation or mine). Ppl feel much more comfortable to work with each other when they know the person well. The weird thing in Vietnam is that it is ok for you to be “party girl” if you are a foreingner 😕 . My advice will be ” be an Vietnamese Aussie with a deep understanding of Vietnamese culture”, that is your advantage for both of your social and work life.

Dont worry too much, young ppl nowadays are open but choose the person to share your facebook and add the ppl who you know only. For example , I even added my sister’s friends and now they think that I am a cool brother after seeing all my dancing performance :D.

I think that you just do it when you feel comfortable and trust the person otherwise just ignore them, it will be fine.

I found his advice sound and useful. Moreover, the way he characterised me went to the heart of my own questions about my identity.

In Australia, my mum and everyone in the Vietnamese community (of which I’m part of) call each other ‘Vietnamese’. And yet, when I go to Vietnam, they call me ‘Australian’ or ‘Viet kieu‘. So in Australia, I’m Vietnamese. And in Vietnam, I’m Australian.

I’ve tried to reconcile this by telling myself that I grew up in a family with ‘Vietnamese’ values, and within a society with ‘Australian’ values. And yet, that still didn’t resolve the identity issues I faced whilst in Vietnam. To make my situation more complicated, when I visited some distant relatives in regional northern Vietnam, they spoke about myself and them being intimately connected by blood. That they and I were so close and we should support each other. So whilst I thought I was distant and different, they considered me close. So when my friend wrote that I should see myself as a “Vietnamese Aussie with a deep understanding of Vietnamese culture”, that made sense to me. It still doesn’t resolve how I see myself and my connection to those distant relatives though. My journey of understanding myself and my identity continues then.

Questions of identity are so cliched, yet, they are crucial. I read a quote saying something along the lines of:

“How pitiful the man who does not know himself”.

Indeed. Indeed.

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