Xin Chao Means Hello
The young children, barely able to conceal their anticipation, stood shoulder-to-shoulder across the cement steps of the Tam Ky Baby Orphanage, straining to see us, the new pale-skinned volunteers, tucked into an aging, white Fiat.
Our first meeting was a clumsy mix of high-fives, stares and run-by leg slaps. The orphans were testing us, I’d later realize, and I worried that committing to volunteer at the orphanage for two months was the worst idea I’d ever followed through on.
Ten months prior, I had suggested volunteering in Vietnam to my two children, then 8 and 13. They agreed and over the summer, then fall, and into winter we made the preparations: obtaining passports, applying for visas, and then selling most of our belongings to finance the trip.
Now as I stood in the chilly, concrete play area, surrounded by faces filled with curiosity, doubt and a tinge of fear, I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly I had gotten us into. After the first hour, when I heard the giggles of both my kids and the orphans, I no longer worried. This was indeed worth everything we’d sacrificed to get here.
Every morning, for the next eight weeks, we visited the Baby Orphanage, a small, cement complex of rooms, to play with the children. My son Stuart, as the only male to interact with the children, was an immediate rock star. At each arrival he was swarmed by his admiring fans and two hours later, the children would have to be pried off his back, his shoulders, his legs.
Audrey, my nine-year-old daughter, let her nurturing instincts peek through and spent much of the time with a trio of orphans we nicknamed The 3 Musketeers--they were always together. Our daily visits promoted a wonderful friendship and she became particularly close to Kieu, a spunky little 2-year-old girl who had been abandoned within the first few days of our arrival.
Quang, a delightful 5-year-old, had immediately connected with Stuart and the two developed a relationship that ended all too abruptly when an American family came to adopt him. It was bittersweet, saying goodbye yet knowing his life would be filled with the love of a family.
Despite the inability to communicate or, even pronounce their names correctly, our family developed a fondness for the numerous children who called this place home. Some had been there for years, others, like Kieu had been there a short while. Each has their own personality, their own quirks that emblazoned their faces into our memories for a lifetime.
While my children played with the orphans, I often found myself in the baby room, a barren room except for the large, wooden slat beds the babies were laid upon until we came to hold them. Covered in mosquito nets that sat over them like small umbrellas, the babies were eager to be cuddled, kissed and sung to; I was more than happy to oblige.
The orphanages, like the country as a whole, are very poor. The food provided for the children was limited to rice gruel--three times a day, a diet that lacks in many of the required vitamins and minerals necessary for young children. To combat the problem in some small way, we brought fruit at each visit, their only fresh produce for the day, and learned the Vietnamese word for each kind, yelling out a mangled "Dua!" or "Le!" as we brought in the bags.
Several children faced serious malnutrition issues prior to their arrival and despite the orphanage "mothers" doing all they could, they simply couldn’t put on much weight. We brought along sua chua (yogurt) for the extra calories they so desperately needed.
Our two months as volunteers were filled with myriad activities: near-constant games of chase for my son (the official rough-houser for the group), consoling the criers, playing kitchen with the few battered toys available, and bottle-feeding babies. I watched from the side many mornings, pleased to watch as my children shared themselves with others as they quickly become friends, regardless of the cultural differences. Communication was limited to gestures, but somehow the kids managed, even flourished.
This, the connection between cultures, between countries, was what I had hoped for all those months prior when, sitting in a cafe on a drizzly March morning in Portland, when I marked on the application: "Vietnamese Orphanage, 2 months."