Valerie Dao: Fulbright, Vietnam 2009

2nd entry:  

Fulbright SE Asia Conference: About two weeks ago, Fulbright scholars from around Southeast Asia were invited to Manila to take part in the annual Fulbright Mid-Year Conference.  When the Vietnam group stepped into the Shangri-la hotel, our new home for the next week, our jaws were on the floor.  A 360 degree view of the lobby will show you a lounge with sky high glass walls, a live band off in the corner, the entryway  to  a beautiful swimming pool, and then Heat restaurant (hands down the best breakfast/lunch buffet I have ever experienced).   By the way that we were reacting, the other scholars most likely thought that this trip was the first time we had been welcomed back into civilization in months. 

The next day, Fulbright students and scholars from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines engaged in a multidisciplinary discourse that included both academic and cultural experiences.  The level of excitement in the room far surpassed that which was elicited from us when we saw our accommodations (keep in mind this is coming from someone who has been eating off street carts for the past 7 months, so you know the Conference was good!).  Everyone was genuinely interested in the research that was being conducted within these respective countries, and even more so, learning about these current developments helped us all to understand the progress in our own host nations as well as the region as a whole.  It was truly a remarkable experience, made even better when I crossed paths with a fellow Anteater! 

Anteaters Valerie Dao and Andy Hoang at the conference

Before coming to the conference, I had been so entrenched in my work that it had completely slipped my mind that I would have the opportunity to meet our Thailand scholar—Andy Hoang.  It was truly a pleasure to be able to meet with Andy and hear about his current research.  He discussed how social norms in Thailand affect the treatment of children with special needs, which paralleled research he had previously conducted in Vietnam.  

I found Andy’s perspective and research particularly interesting because of an experience that I had a few days before coming to Manila…….. 

My Visit to the Agent Orange Village in Tu Du Hospital: When I had first agreed to teach at HUFLIT University, one of the stipulations that the President and I had agreed upon was that a portion of the money that I earned would be donated to the victims of Agent Orange. As the Chairman of the Board for the Ho Chi Minh City Association for Victims of Agent Orange, he was pushing for me to visit the Tu Du village, which is part of the local hospital.  As the time neared to make the donation and visit the children, I was hesitant to go.  

If you venture around the most populous parts of the city (particularly in tourist hot spots), you are bound to see a person afflicted with physical deformities associated with Agent Orange.  So, one would assume that after an extended period of living in this city, I had seen enough of this to desensitize myself from what I was going to see at the hospital.  Even so, I felt very uneasy about my impending visit.  I was afraid of what I was going to see and how I would react.  On the eve of my visit I continued to mull over the necessity of visiting the site.  Needless to say, I decided that the right thing to do was to go and to face my fears. 

When I stepped into the village area, where about 60 children live, I was greeted with smiles—all of the children were so excited to have new visitors to interact with.  An area approximately the size of the UCI Scholarship office hosted doctor’s offices and beds for all 60 children (ranging from the age of 3-28). 

Some children were bedridden because of the growing tumors and mental disabilities, and others were free to roam around on the floor outside. The first few moments you are in one of their bedrooms, and their reality sets in, your heart begins to sink.   In a country with a healthcare system that is already poor, children with special needs are particularly marginalized (on many different levels).   Not only have many of these children been abandoned by their parents, but to say that their medical treatment and living facilities are subpar would be a major understatement.  Seeing a life in suffering is never easy, the natural reaction is to feel sorry for them.  However, when I interacted with them—I could not keep the smile off my face.  These children were so full of life and just genuinely happy to be playing with my friend and I.  Whatever physical disabilities they had did not obstruct their jovial nature—it was a challenge to keep up with their pace!

 In exploring one of the rooms reserved for older girls, I met a girl named Hong.  I had been tired out by the younger kids and wanted to take a break, so I sat down on the floor and she happened to come up and talk to me.  I found out that she is a student at HUFLIT (the school I am teaching at) and that she will be completing her degree in Information Technology this year, and already has a job lined up as a manager after she graduates.  She lives in the hospital in a small room with about 12 other girls, and when she is not studying for her own schooling, she helps tutor the younger students who are able to attend general school. Every day she drives her motorbike to the university without any special assistance.  Hong has no legs and one functioning arm. 

Finally, I understood what my roommate had told me (she is a fellow Fulbright student working on healthcare reform): to feel sorry for these children would be to undermine everything they have accomplished.  It is truly amazing.    

I am in the process of obtaining permission to volunteer at the village on a weekly basis. 

Now, when I really think about where I want my work to take me…it is not to places like the Shangri-la.  It is to the people that inspire you, like the children of Tu Du village.

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