Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I felt foreign and isolated those first few weeks in Ho Chi Minh City. I didn’t speak Vietnamese, my host family didn’t speak English, and I didn’t want to spend too much time with Westerners.
My street had everything. It buzzed with daily activities of families, friends, business transactions, kids playing and frustrated drivers navigating their way down the narrow one-lane road. Sex workers stood precariously, juxtaposing the Roman Catholic
Church across the street, while poor squatters constructed haphazard dwellings by leaning sheet metal against an outside wall of a fancy French-style home.
Despite their differences, everyone lived in peace. But I was an outsider and it wouldn’t be easy for this tall, white, American gal to make friends. So I went to volunteer at the orphanage down the street.
It figured I could make friends easily at a place full of children in need of attention. It didn’t matter that I had just started learning Vietnamese and could only say a few sentences. I could smile, hug, laugh and tickle. I had no idea how difficult it would be to break through the emotional barrier separating me from the children. That barrier kept me safe in my grown-up, educated, well-nourished world full of opportunity.
Orphelinait Phy My houses only physically and mentally handicapped children. Because they are not allowed in regular schools, they have in-house teachers and almost never leave the confines of their one-acre world. I was not prepared to see the severity of some children’s physical deformities, nor contemplate their isolation. Most devastating was the realization that countless other children share their needs. As I entered their world, my mind and heart acquired a chronic preoccupation.
The first time I saw Son I was afraid to pick him up. He was crying and his body was painfully contorted with muscle spasms which seemed to be most intense in his sharply arched back. I thought even touching him might aggravate the pain. That night in bed, I cried too.
The second time, with a nurse’s reassurance, I lifted his tense, trembling body into my arms and took him out into the fresh courtyard air. He cried the whole time.
Eventually, he’d calm down when he saw me enter the room, eagerly summoning me with his eyes in anticipation of our daily trek around the courtyard. He grew to love the feel of the polyester door curtain as it brushed against his face on the way out, laughing more unabashedly at each repeat of the daily ritual. Before long, you could hear his moment of bliss throughout the large, often noisy room.
One day, I noticed some physical therapists working with children from the day camp adjacent to the orphanage. I went to say hi and much to my delight one of them took Son from my arms and started working with him. She was able to get him to relax enough to be cradled like a normal child. From that moment I began to realize the devastating effects of neglect. Just a bit of attention led to remarkable improvement in his mobility. Yet, until then, he lacked even that.
Over several months time, Son transformed into a lively young boy. The wailing child I was once afraid to pick up now greeted me with a smile as he lay relaxed in his crib. The orphanage had assigned him to daily physical therapy sessions. He enjoyed human attention and contact for an hour a day in addition to my visits. A regular dose of love had given him life.
Facing Son’s bleak world allowed me to see past his circumstances and into his humanness. Connecting with him was natural when I remembered the essence of myself. I, too, am just another person who needs love to live.