Ky Quang, Mekong, & Saying Goodbye
Placement #3: Ky Quang Orphanage
The pagoda is filled with so many carvings, statues, and adornments that it bears a closer resemblance, to me at least, to the Crystal Cathedral - or a Midwest mega church in its gaudiness - than to a Buddhist temple. The pictures below will say more than my writing can summarize, but the pagoda clearly has copious amounts of money poured into it to maintain and decorate it, while the orphanage occupies a space teetering between third world and absolute destitution. Because of this, it’s hard not to feel the latter outcome to expectations. Be that as it may, in the chances I’ve had to speak with the monks, it’s clear they care very deeply about all of the children here. It’s easy to understand why: one second spent with these kids would erase any and all feelings of disillusionment in even the most ardent of skeptics.
Professional athletes and coaches like to talk a lot about “overcoming adversity” in their quest to win the championship. Maybe their right guard had turf toe and played through it or their forward had a temperature of 98.7 and persevered in an almost Herculean effort of might and muscle in the face of insurmountable odds. But I think they’d agree the face of true strength, courage, and the very definition of adversity overcome is the kids here and at LTK. I used to think I was tough and strong because I could bench press my bodyweight 20 times…sort of an irrelevant definition of brawn now (plus I can’t do that anymore…or anything near it…).
I can tell the experience here is going to impact me indelibly.
*Side Note* This is the first April Fools in 5 years in which I haven’t pulled a prank of a friend. Usually, I post a fake craigslist ad, giving away something free (like a collection of theatre wigs, troll dolls, marionette puppets, or laser discs) with their phone number. So be ready next year, all of you. You’ve been warned.
For the rest of the day, I spent most of my time trying, and failing, to feed a boy named Kuong. He’s six years old and awesome (like all of the kids here). He has cerebral palsy, so his body fails him, but he’s really smart. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to see other able-bodied people wandering around while being confined to a chair, the ground, a wheelchair, or braces 24/7. Though I can see on his face, and sometimes through his tears, that he understands the reality of the situation and the ensuing frustration that accompanies it, the fact is he is more often than not smiling. I’ll take some pictures of him next week to show to you, and post them below.
A day will come when I’m nothing more than a memory for these kids. I’ll inhabit the same place as old friends I swore I’d never forget, but whose names moved from daily conversation, to the tip of my tongue, to the recesses of my mind, in some deeply buried off place as I become older and a bit more forgetful. It’s human, and I think that’s as it should be. Now is all that exists, and the future will come when it will. Today is where I will focus my work, one hour, one minute, one smile at a time.
There was a volunteer today who was overcome with emotion, of a feeling of guilt at not being able to do enough for the children, or help their lives in a way that would be as long-lasting as she hoped. I completely understand that, and can relate to the same feeling. Yet, while I’m certainly no expert on this and I can only speak from my own experience, I feel it’s important to recognize the possibilities vs. limitations, and expectations vs. realities, of being a volunteer at a place like an orphanage.
I remember my first week at Ebenezer Orphanage in Kenya, I wanted to “save” as many of the kids as I could. Not in a sense of move them to some different surrounding – they were/are incredibly happy being at Ebenezer – I just wanted to do more than I was. I wanted to somehow provide them with food and medicine and shelter and happiness forever. Then, the reality set in that that wasn’t realistic. The amount of time and resources I had, and any volunteer has, is limited. Always. Whether it’s one day, one month, one year, or one lifetime, eventually it will run its course. It’s important to recognize that, because there is freedom in the finite. There is no one to save, and no one who needs to be rescued. All that exists is the here and now. Lend a hand, help feed, teach, dress, smile, secure donations for food or clothes or medicine or surgeries, draw animals and finger-paint. As much as it’s possible, help make each day a little better. Then, be at peace with the truth that adding a little bit more good and doing what could be done to add to the positive is something to be celebrated. Every little bit of good matters. Or so me thinks.
Any problem I may have in my life seems to dissolve into the ether for the time that I’m with the kids.
Safe travels to my friends, and I hope to see you again someday soon.
But there are of course always going to be days like this, and of course it didn’t amount to more than a big sigh, the enjoyment of a cold shower, and, always, inexpressible gratitude at the chance to be able to spend the day with the kids at Ky Quang.
Here are some shots from the Mekong.
4.8 - 4.10.13
I think the older children know that volunteers are each only there for a limited amount of time, but I don’t know what kind of effect it has on the younger ones. As I progress in my travels, I plan to ask this question to the older kids. I just have to think of the best way to phrase it.
I’ve also experienced volunteers - from the US, Europe, Australia - who have almost no interaction with the children outside of posing for pictures with them, feigning affection for a fleeting photo. Part of me can’t help but feel the volunteers who do this are volunteering simply to feel a boost to their karma and to show their friends back home that, “Hey, I volunteered and spent a good amount of time with these poor brown kids.” That’s just a knee-jerk reaction, though, and I can’t pretend to know a person’s truest intentions and volition for why they’re here. Maybe I’m being too cynical. If in their heart of hearts they’re there to truly lend a hand and be present, great. But if not…
One of the girls I interviewed was too shy to appear on camera, so I conducted an audio interview. She wants to be a magician when she grows up! The other, who is a wiz at math, was dropped off by her parents at the orphanage when she was six years old. Six. I have no words.
4.13 - 4.14.13
If for nothing else than a brief excursion off of the surface of the sun, this was a great trip. It was also really scenic, the food was great, and I stayed in a hotel with air conditioning. I also found a store that sold only Johnny Walker’s and Spam. I ate at a restaurant where the owner painted me a picture with his fingers. I meditated under clear blue skies on the bank of a lake. I walked about 12 miles without breaking a sweat and was able to go for a run. My lungs hated me for the 6 weeks of almost no exercise while simultaneously sucking in the exhaust of about 34,568,391 motorcycles and packs of cigarettes (secondhand, though I feel like it'd make economic sense for me to pick it up at 75 cents/pack here).
Navigating through the maze of prostitutes and drug pushers, I happened to strike up a conversation with a motorbike taxi driver. His name is Tho. He’s 65 and reminded me of my grandpa. He told me his story: he was an interpreter and code breaker for the US in the Vietnam War. Three of his sons, who were children at the time, died in the war. His wife died a few years back. He has two sons who survived the war, who he is incredibly proud of, and he has been a moto driver for the last 10 years. One of his favorite things is being a sort of diplomat for visitors to Vietnam, greeting them with a gentle politeness and practicing countless new languages.
I’m not a good enough writer to explain what the experience of looking into the eyes of a man who has no more tears left to cry because life has used him as a punching bag is like. Wounds heal, scars don’t, and there are hurts that time will never erase.
There are a little over 250 kids at Ky Quang. About 20% are blind, 30% are physically and/or mentally disabled, and 50% have no handicaps. It costs about $8,000 a month to care for all of the children. When the children are old enough, they go on to become monks, attend university, or get jobs. Some of the kids aren’t physically able to leave the orphanage. Kids who pass on are cremated and buried in a plot in a public cemetery. His favorite memory out of his entire time as the head monk was helping restore sight to a blind child, but he says there is no happiness that matches what he receives any time he is able to spend time with the children.
I went to the newborn and toddler room with him after the interview, and took pictures of him playing with the children. It’s clear that he fills the role of father to almost all of the children, and they respect and adore him. I also had the chance to interview two of the nurses that I work with in the daycare, and was able to gain added insight into their daily lives and of the kids I’ve been working with over the last couple weeks. Beautiful people.
After work, I – along with four other volunteers - was invited to dinner by one of my fellow volunteers, Nhi. Her aunt and uncle live just around the corner from Ky Quang. Incredible food, wonderful company. I also happened upon Cobra Kai practicing in the park for their rematch against Daniel San.
Here’s some pictures that’ll serve as a reminder to me when times get hard, and they will, that there is still beauty, truth, and boundless good in the world.