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Vietnam, Voluntourism

On war, struggle, and saying goodbye

My last official day at the orphanage was Friday, but I couldn’t stay away. After meeting with a new friend on Saturday, I introduced her to the kids who have stolen my heart. Today, I returned to the orphanage alone to say my goodbyes. When it was finally time for me to leave, it tugged at my heart when Minh refused to let me put him down. With his arms around my neck, he wrapped his little legs tightly around my waist and whimpered into my shoulder. It’s at times like this that I wonder if it’s a good thing to form any kind of bond when I volunteer. It’s also at times like this that I reflect on the randomness of birth. With a mere roll of the dice, I can have my life; with another roll, I can be a prisoner in my own body, mentally aware but physically disabled, and abandoned on the doorstep of a Buddhist orphanage.

War and struggle. This seems to be an ongoing theme of this trip. At this very moment in Thailand, it’s the people against the government. In Cambodia, it was the government against the people. In Vietnam, governments against each other. And at the Ky Quang orphanage, it’s a child’s struggle to exist in the world. Who can truly say if all of those disabled children are victims of a past war? What matters is that whether directly or indirectly, those children—and many more like them—are abandoned or ignored while the world focuses its energies in directions that serve to create more of their kind. What matters is that at the Ky Quang temple, there’s a little girl who is drowning in her own cranial fluid even with a shunt in her stomach to relieve the pressure. What matters is that when I fed Trac his meal of rice and diced chicken, the dull and complacent look on his face changed abruptly. He slowly reached for my hand and looked me straight in the eyes with a look of comprehension and sorrow. Could I have imagined it? I hope so, because I would rather that all of the kids be like Little Sau—blissfully unaware and permanently happy.

Yet another ongoing theme of this trip is that despite the constant battles, the world moves on. The conflict in Thailand will be resolved, although I fear there will be even more loss of life before it does. Grass grows in the shadowy mass graves of Choeung Ek and Cambodia is healing. Vietnam has prospered since the war and its people are wonderfully open and welcoming, despite our troubled history. The world moves on, but some things remain: families that have been torn apart, unexploded mines that tear limbs, bones that remain unburied, and children born with disabilities or disfigurements because poisons once filled the air of their forebears. If the world must move on, my wish is that it does not forget about the lingering, indirect costs of our struggles.

Despite the melancholy tone of this entry, it’s not a reflection of how I feel inside. At this moment, I feel the way I do at the end of every trip: thoughtful, fortunate, sad to say goodbye, but happy to be returning to a life that I enjoy, even though I know it’s a life of abundance that the majority of the world does not share (or perhaps I enjoy it more because of this knowledge). Experiences like the one I’ve had over these last several weeks serve to remind me of what is real—and the realness of the world makes me feel alive in a way that I cannot express. I am leaving this war-torn, strife-filled, beautiful world that I love; to return to family, friends, and a city that I adore. Who can feel melancholy about that?

As always, thanks for sharing this experience with me. Until the next trip…

About colleen f

Colleen is a globe trotting, sight seeing, day tripping, frequent flying traveler with a penchant for voluntourism.


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