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reality check – how volunteering in vietnam changed my perspective

There is so much I want to achieve. It can feel incredibly daunting and overwhelming trying to choose your next move. We really are spoilt for choice. There are so many different career paths I would love to head down, romantic cities across the world I would love to live in. I graduate university at the end of this year and I’m overwhelmed by what to do next. Do I focus on making smart career moves early on, stay for another year of Honours, or do I blow my savings and head to Europe? Melbourne is looking more and more appealing too.

In dire need for some soul searching, I mustered up the courage and took myself off to Vietnam for a month. I’ve always been intrigued by the latest ‘voluntourism’ fad and so I spent some time volunteering for a family who’d been affected by Agent Orange during the war. Our volunteer group worked on fixing up their house, a cement structure that was literally the size of a lounge room in a typical western-style house. It’s common in Vietnam for family members to all live together, either in the one home or in neighbouring houses. The family we spent time with welcomed us with open arms and despite the language barriers; we worked side by side repairing the house and would share meals together, eating on the floor in their homes. I was blown away by their capacity for hospitality and kindness.

The Vietnamese place a high value on family. It’s customary that when a woman marries a man she must leave her own home to go and live with her husband’s family. It’s expected that she will help to take care of his parents. The family we stayed with during the volunteer project demonstrated the ways that this Vietnamese tradition worked. Everyone in the family took great care of each other and I was particularly in awe of the women who just worked incredibly hard, day in day out, often waking at 4am and not getting to bed until 11pm.

One of the granddaughters could speak a bit of English, a gracefully tall, slender girl called Hue (like the Vietnamese city Hue, pronounced like Hway). She’s 22 years old and works in a sweat shop, like many of the women living in town. One night her mother pulled out a photo album and showed us wedding photos of Hue and her fiancé (in Vietnam wedding photographs are taken before the actual wedding day). Her fiancé is 18 years old and lives in another town. She told us they would be married on 18 January 2012, after which she will leave her family to go and live with him. As customary, I wished her my congratulations.

On the final day of our volunteer project before heading back to Hanoi we had a farewell dinner with the family. Afterwards we all took group photographs. I stood next to Hue and could feel her shivering under my arm.
‘Why are you shivering? Are you cold!?’ I asked her, rubbing her shoulder.
‘No,’ she said, she was just sad. And I looked into her face and saw she had begun crying. I turned and hugged her. I was amazed that she could become so emotional and felt a bit bad that I wasn’t showing the same display of sadness at our leaving. It suddenly felt extremely personal and although we got along and connected with the family, I didn’t think us leaving would be this upsetting.

I said to Hue and her mother that they should come and visit Australia, but how ignorant I felt when Hue responded, now even more tearful, ‘No, we can’t. We don’t earn enough.’ It was then I realised how foolish I’d been to assume Hue was crying because her new friends were leaving. She was crying because we were leaving and she was staying. Indefinitely.
Although visiting Vietnam was incredibly eye opening, coming home was equally a shock. It’s the beginning of a new year and friends talk about their big plans for 2012, starting new jobs, going back to university, moving out of home and heading to Sydney or Melbourne.

Hue is in the back of my mind and although it’s with some guilt that I return to the affluence of Australian suburbia, this year I plan to embrace the overwhelming choice that comes with it. To ride the wave of opportunity and never forget to be grateful.

By Cara Hine

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