Reflections on VISIONS Vietnam 2009

by Alex Ottenstein

I sit down on Hue’s bed, a metal frame with a bamboo mat on top of it. Hue is eleven years old, with luminous eyes and long black hair that reaches her waist. She wants to teach me a board game. I know this will be a challenge considering she is deaf, mute, and knows only Vietnamese.  Hue teaches me the game in complete silence, just using her hands. Together we wait to see what number will appear on the dice and how many spaces we can advance our plastic horses. Although we’re supposedly competing, Hue laughs whenever I roll a high number, as I feel she secretly hopes I will win.

I have always been passionate about service learning and global experiences. By studying Mandarin Chinese, I became fascinated with Asia. I was craving a new experience that incorporated these interests, which led me to spending five weeks this past summer in Vietnam. I was headquartered at the Thuy An Disabled Children’s Center, located in a rural village in Northern Vietnam.  The children at the Center suffer from multiple disabilities and are sent to Thuy An for rehabilitation because their parents cannot afford to care for them.  Every morning our group of 11 high school students worked on a construction project in the community.  We spent the afternoons working with the deaf children in their classroom, where I taught English, math, and facilitated arts and crafts projects.

On my first day working in the classroom I met Hue when the teacher called her to the chalkboard to complete a math problem.  Hue, in her noodle-stained collared shirt and pajama pants, attempted to solve the problem.  Although she was having trouble, Hue did not give up until the answer was correct.  Once Hue went back to her wooden desk, I decided to help her with math.  She raised her hand often and always stayed focused. I instantly formed a connection with Hue because of her strong desire to learn and challenge herself, qualities which reminded me of myself.

In our world of emerging media and social networking, we can always connect with others almost instantly. During my experience in Vietnam, however, I found myself reverting to the primitive ways of communication – hand movements, pictures, and writing.  Without modern technology, Hue and I were able to form a meaningful relationship, based on face-to-face communication.

After every weekend, when our group arrived back at the Center from our travels around Vietnam, Hue was waiting for me. I used my love of photography as a way to show her all of the places I had the chance to visit. From the rolling hills of terraced rice paddies in Sapa to the bustling streets of Hanoi, my photos acted as a lens into Hue’s own country, to the places she had never been and probably never will be.  Each time I pressed the side arrow on my camera to scroll to another picture, Hue gave me a thumbs-up or a nod of recognition.

My communication skills with Hue progressed when we had a written conversation in my $1 notebook from Target. For example, Hue wrote, “Bo chi ten la gi? Me chi ten la gi?” asking me my parents’ names.  With one day of Vietnamese language school, I was surprisingly able to answer some of her questions without getting them translated. We shared our birthdays – “ngay sinh” – and drew pictures of our homes and families. Hue never got impatient when I had a hard time understanding her questions.

On the last day of the program, I waved goodbye to Hue from the bus as tears welled up in our eyes. I was now leaving this experience using the almost obsolete forms of communication and reentering the world of Facebook and e-mail. Through time and patience, Hue and I were able to understand each other more clearly. She was not only a window into the culture and people of Vietnam, but also a window into myself and what’s meaningful in relationships.

VISIONS in The New York Times