16th Oct 2009
Thanh Xuan Peace Village
Our volunteer guide who was in charge of taking us to our first day at Peace Village showed up at our house almost an hour and a half late. We were warned in our little ‘cultural differences’ lesson that this is normal, but no less annoying as hell – especially when we could have slept for an extra hour. We were brought to what I assume is the main doctors office. Our volunteer guide, the doctor and a female worker kept talking in Vietnamese and only spoke to us to ask us questions that they should have already known the answer to like where we were from, what we studied in university, etc. They should have received our resumes long before they met us, but they seemed a bit unprepared. It was very bizarre. The doctor spoke little English and the woman even less. We were given a quick tour of the two small buildings and shown the rooms where we would spend most of our time. The first building is run down and depressing and the ground floor has a dirt hallway. The other building is a bit better and cleaner, but nothing great. By the time we did all of this it was time for the kids to have lunch. Our first task of the day would be to help feed the children. I fed two little boys a mixture of rice, some sort of green vegetable, what looked to be tiny pieces of chicken and broth that is all mixed together. The first boy ate well. As long as I didn’t put any of the green vegetable on his spoon he would open up his mouth and eat. If there was even a speck of green, he would point to it, shake his head no and close his mouth. Me - being a picky eater and former green vegetable hater – thought this was adorable. Boy number two was a different story. He refused to eat. He kept dry heaving over and over again and would not let the spoon near his mouth. He kept squirming and crying. I didn’t know if the dry heaving was some sort of tick or what. I had no idea what to do. It doesn’t help that I have absolutely no experience feeding children and very little experience with children with disabilities. When an aide pointed to him and put her hand to her forehead I understood that he was sick with a sore throat and fever. Our volunteer coordinator wandered in at this time and told me that they want him to eat to get his strength up. They didn’t seem to care that he was too sick to eat. They were just so focused on food giving strength. True, but we all know what it is like be sick, have no appetite, or to even have such a sore throat that any type of food hurts. One day isn’t going to harm him. They finally told me to give up. One of the staff members told me that maybe he could drink milk for the nutrition. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough funding for milk, so I promised to buy some on my lunch break. The poor kid – all he probably wanted was to go to bed and be taken care of. He is one of the orphans who were dropped off by his family. I would find out days later that one of the staff members found him abandoned outside of the center. He was left with a note from his mother saying that she could not longer take care of him.
After feeding the children we have a break from 11:30AM – 2PM. Since we only live a 15 minute walk away we are able to come home during this time for lunch and a much needed nap. When we returned at 2PM, I was taken directly to the boy who wouldn’t eat his lunch. He led me to his bed (more like a bamboo mat on a frame) and we sat there together. He took a few sips of the milk. I could sense he just wanted affection, a mother to take care of him. He lay down and not knowing what else to do, I rubbed his back and told him it would be okay. I wanted to take him back to the states, put him in a bed with lots of pillows, blankets and stuffed animals, pop in a Disney movie, and give him anything his heart desired. Not long after he laid down, one of the staff members pulled me away to help give some other kids showers. He turned his face to the door as I left, and I will never forget the look in his eyes as I walked out.
About 10 children stood around naked in the hall outside two showers. Like most Vietnamese bathrooms there was no shower stall, just a detachable showerhead on the wall. A few kids (mostly boys, but one or two girls) would pile in as we washed them. I have never washed a child, making the whole thing a very weird, unexpected experience. I lucked out and only had to help a few little kids. Lindsay, on the other hand, was shut in the other bathroom with two boys that had definitely already hit puberty. It is hard to tell their age from their faces and behavior, but full grown pubic hair pretty much says it all. Sorry for the visual. Totally awkward and Lindsay was not happy. Once of the boys that I was helping got slapped by an aide in the shower a few seconds after I made him giggle as I tickled his belly. Rather than treat it like an impersonal carwash, I was trying to make them laugh and smile as they got washed. They are human beings after all. The staff seems to forget this sometimes. We were warned that they get hit sometimes and there isn’t much we can do about it since it is more accepted here, but it was still heartbreaking to see. What made it even sadder was it didn’t appear that he was doing anything wrong.
After shower time Emma went to one room and Lindsay and I to another. There were about 15 children in the room – some staring off into space, others playing with a few filthy broken toys. Three staff members sat together and were basically doing absolutely nothing. There were nicer toys locked up in a glass cupboard. They didn’t have enough toys out for all of them and the poor kids had to be bored out of their minds. The teachers, with the exception of one, do not speak English. Lindsay and I had no idea what to do with ourselves. We just kind of sat there and tried to entertain the kids with a few broken toys and were happy when four o’clock came and we were told to we could leave for the day.
We arrived back home to no electricity or water so our plan of cleaning ourselves up to go out for the evening were pretty much shot. Instead we took a taxi straight into the Old Quarter to wander around and get some dinner. Its amazing the random things that you see on the side of the street – a man getting a haircut in the middle of the sidewalk, a woman getting a pedicure in what looked to be a restaurant, a couple sitting on a bench beside the lake as the woman clipped her fingernails, a baby being held over a pile of dirt with his pants down, and the most disturbing of all – two men holding a squirming chicken while one cut its neck with a knife, letting the blood drip into a bowl. The poor chicken was going nuts, feathers flying everywhere. If you are a germ-a-phobe this is not the place for you. We had dinner at Le Pub – a popular hangout for expats, Western tourists and a few locals. I was dying for a meal that didn’t include rice and ordered a hamburger. It turned out to be one of the best I have ever had.