Late last year I made the decision to leave Aotearoa/New Zealand’s beautiful shores and travel the world as a volunteer. An ambitious project to be sure, but one that has initially lead me to Vietnam. I am a volunteer at the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation (CNCF) in Ho Chi Minh City, commonly called Saigon. My role is to work alongside the medical and support staff in the Intensive Monitoring Unit (IMU), and there are two rooms – infants, with our youngest aged 2 months up to 20-24 months, when they move to the young children’s room.
The Christina Noble Children’s Foundation is involved in many, many areas of development to enhance the lives of children in Vietnam and Mongolia, and the IMU is just one small part of this vast operation.
I made a conscious decision to be bi-cultural in my volunteering, and that included understanding the Vietnamese way. Most volunteers are having a career-break or GAP year and have been inspired by Christina’s personal story of hardship and struggle, and want to connect with someone as amazing as she is. A common trait of volunteers is to come into the Centre all guns blazing, ready to make a difference for children, without realising that we are guests in the environment and we need to be respectful of what is in place and the reasons why.
The emphasis on cleanliness cannot be possibly described, but envision and crew of wonderful women in green polo-shirts who sweep, dust, wipe, scrub and polish all day long. We walk around on tiled floors in our bare feet, and they are never dirty – if only I could practiced this level of domestic bliss in my own home – but no, I’m a bit of a rascal in that area.
There is a language barrier that is overcome with wild gestures and lots of laughter, although most of the staff have some English. Sadly, however, my Vietnamese is quite dire and I just can’t get my tongue around many words. I ride to work on the back of an Uber motorbike (quite scary at first but totally normal now – it costs about $1.80 for a 25-minute ride), and they often ring to clarify the address. I just answer ‘Hello, hopeless English Lady” and they tend to hang up, but they always find me and I get to work on time! So, you can get by in a foreign country feigning complete ignorance.
When I first talked to my family and friends about volunteering for CNCF, most were overly sympathetic to the poor plight of the children. But I have a different view of this, so before you indulge in this sympathetic stance, remember that this is the life these children have been given, and that can’t be changed. It needs to be celebrated and honoured. It’s their life, and who are we to judge the circumstances.
Now, off to find one of those munchkins for a cuddle, whether they want one or not – I have needs too and a cuddle might just make the world a bit more right!