Miss Christine Cung
Year 10 Student, Vietnam Field Trip 2013
Reflection of a teenage volunteer
Vietnam had always been, since the early years of my childhood, a setting for stories and recounts of happiness and horrors. However, despite what my three-year-old self had been able to come up with, I had never imagined it quite like this. I realise that I’m so fortunate that my first trip back to Vietnam was with the Vietnam Vision Projects Australia (VVPA). First impressions are everything – they shape how you experience a country, how you remember a place, and how it will continue in your memory for years to come. To go as part of a charity with a cause that can’t be described as anything other than noble allowed me to experience things that I know most of my peers have never, and might never be able to experience.
Would it be too far to say that I have become a different person? Maybe. Yet I cannot deny that going to Vietnam with VVPA has definitely altered the way I see things.
As a younger child, I had occasionally wondered what it would be like to be both deaf and blind, but had never come up with a proper idea – I had just concluded that that would be the most terrible situation in the world and promptly dismissed the frightening thought. However, on this trip, I did happen to meet this one patient – an elderly man who was both extremely heavily deaf in both ears and whose vision had diminished so dramatically – a man who I initially believed would be impossible to communicate with. However, what came was a great surprise as I watched Dr Phuong Anh Nguyen sitting across from me and interact with this patient with what seemed like only a small amount of difficulty and a huge amount of patience and compassion. Despite his condition though, it was easy to see that he was trying his hardest to help us, and I have never had so much awe for a person. I still have no idea what it would be like to live with both those conditions, but he taught me that despite all of that, there was still a way to survive.
Each and every patient gave me more than I could ever give back to them. For one week of the year, I was given the opportunity not just to live for myself and benefit just one person, but to provide my life with some greater purpose. All the patients, ranging from the boy of only fourteen to the elderly woman who had lost all her children to a hard life, gave me something intangible, priceless and otherwise unattainable. You cannot buy compassion and you cannot buy an experience such as this. At only fifteen, it is safe to say that I have never been so touched in my few years on this earth. It’s the sense of dignity and this unexplainable happiness that all the patients seemed to possess. At first, I could not understand how people who have so little in material could be so joyous compared to those who have so much, but I quickly came to understand that happiness is just there. It can and often does coexist with pain and suffering, and, without any words, these men and women and children taught me I do not need anything to find happiness from within myself and joy in life. And I found that I achieved the greatest happiness by being able to provide them, and anyone really, with a service, and what greater service could there be than to provide a person with sight – a gift to change a life.
That first day was the first time I had seen someone’s eyes literally light up with hope. Living such a privileged life in a country that seems to have almost everything, I have never been able to completely grasp the things that my own parents understand but this trip allowed me to come to my own terms about my heritage. I’ve never quite been able to understand how completely fortunate I am. You really don’t know how much you take for granted until you see those who don’t have anything to do the same. It really just shocked me and broke my heart, for lack of a better way to explain the feeling, when I saw how overjoyed some of the patients were to receive these acts of kindness.
I really must thank Dr Phuoc Vo and Dr Hoang Lam for giving me the opportunity to assist Dr Patrick Wong. It would also be blasphemy to not thank Dr Wong himself, and everyone else for being incredibly patient with my lacklustre Vietnamese and helping me along. If I hadn’t been given that lucky chance to translate for Dr Wong, I really would not have been able to get a first-hand experience. Without it, I would never have gotten to know the patients at all, and it was the fact that I did get to know these patients – put faces and emotions and snippets of lives to the names – that allowed me to realise the enormity of what VVPA was doing. They were changing hundreds of lives.
However, I cannot forget the other integral part of this experience. I finally completely understood that there was a reason for the endless hours of pens to pages and staring at laptop screens. Despite the fact that I’d expected the trip to be emotionally touching, I hadn’t quite expected it to be so fun. The atmosphere of the whole hospital environment was great, and I’d have to attribute that to all the volunteers and staff who were almost always optimistic despite stressful conditions. The efficiency of the VVPA team was amazing. Who knew about four hundred patients could be seen in only three working days? The busy schedule and long hours, strangely, actually added to my enjoyment of the whole experience. It was a weird sort of fun that I hadn’t known before, and by the end of the trip, I did not want to go home; I wanted to keep working!
It was only by the end of this trip that I realised how to truly appreciate my own culture. The Vietnamese culture is what makes me stand out from my peers, it’s something that makes me special, it’s something I have to offer. And thus I realise how fortunate I am to be given what I have – a rich heritage, a culture worth preserving and a life that I should cherish and be thankful for every day.
I could decorate this statement in tassels and jewellery and emphasise it with glitter and gold but the basic idea is that I have never experienced anything that has had such a profound impact on me in my entire life. And so I must thank the Vietnam Vision Projects Australia(VVPA) and everyone else involved for giving me what can only be described as an amazing opportunity.