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October 2001 - Issue No. #44 (p.7-8)

A Heart-Centered Journey to Vietnam

by Junaline Banez

(former JET Program English teacher, Japan)

It took a year and a half of planning. It hit me, reading an article about the Vietnam Education and Children's Project, that it was something I wanted to do. Feeling disenchanted, I wanted to get away from the commercialism and materialism of the developed world. The hope that simple living still existed somewhere was encouraging enough for me to embark on a journey to Vietnam. I also wanted to under-stand, and be accepting of, other people.

I was born in the Philippines and immigrated to Canada at age 13. I came from both developing and developed worlds. In all aspects, I've had the experience of living a bilingual, bi-cultural life. However, it wasn't until I came to Japan that a desire to "connect with my roots" fully emerged. I tried to remind myself that I was once a child of the third or "developing" world.

"But why Vietnam?" This question was posed several times in Japan. I always answered it could have been anywhere in the world that needed help. Part soul-searching and part "service-providing," the Vietnam Education and Children's Project embodied my hope to link peoples of the world.

To begin my mission, I embarked on a fundraising campaign in my Japanese town, raising awareness of Vietnam by staging a charity concert. From money to toys to school supplies, gifts of love poured forth from my community. The result was phenomenal; the Project for me really started in Japan. It was rewarding to see people's enthusiasm for and involvement in this worthy humanitarian cause.

The Project continued, of course, once our group arrived in Vietnam. I didn't realize to what extent I would love this country. She taught me new life lessons. Certainly the experience of being there will continue to direct me on a fulfilling life-path. I rediscovered more than the magic of giving; I rediscovered LIFE! Vietnam called me with such magnitude that I couldn't resist.

Discovery lay in seeing the eyes of the Vietnamese people. There was undoubtedly a heart-centered goal to this December trip. External symbols of Christmas were replaced by something much more profound: the glow in people's eyes, be they young or old!

I was filled with bliss and joy, more so than I have ever felt in my thirty years! I was meant to go there. It was home. After all, why would I be doing so much and giving so much of me if it hadn't been?

On the Road to Healing

Vietnam touched all of my senses. I went without any expectations, just an open mind and heart. I only hoped to learn and understand. The director, Ms. Gia Hoa Ryan, wanted to see people from outside and within Vietnam come to understand each other's histories and cultures. There are many different notions about Vietnam and the Vietnam War (or American War, as it is known in Vietnam). In Vietnam, the war left many indelible physical and emotional scars. Surprisingly, these forgiving people have been struggling to make a better life in the midst of poverty. Some war veterans can be seen working as cyclo drivers and street vendors. (Some of these are amputees who are not allowed to receive pensions because of their participation as soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army.) Children are every-where, vending postcards and t-shirts.

Japanese Kids + Vietnamese Kids= Love

Before I left for Vietnam, I told my Japanese students that Vietnamese children are poor, that they barely get by. Some may go to school, and some may not be able to. But all children have the same need for shelter, education, health, nutrition, fun and happiness! I wanted to let my Japanese students know how they must appreciate and be grateful for what they have. They're not necessarily luckier than their Vietnamese counterparts, but they do have more.

My students felt compassion and joined in the charitable drive for the Project. They enthusiastically made Christmas cards, posters and donated used toys and goods. Their eyes lit up when I told them how happy this would make a Vietnamese child or orphan. Friendships were forged right there. Children are great. They, above all, make us more "human." It is a humbling experience to be around them. An eight-year old Japanese boy in one of my elementary schools expressed how happy he was to make friends with Vietnamese children, even though he had no clue where Vietnam was! It wasn't only me reaching out to Vietnam: my students shared in this.

And so I delivered gifts of love from Japan. To see beaming eyes full of happiness in both countries, I was overjoyed! I know love is indeed the best four-letter word.

"Merci, Madame"

I had many beautiful and poignant experiences while in Vietnam, but one that I shall never forget happened while visiting a home for the elderly and the disabled in Ho Chi Minh City. There I met Nguyen Thi Hai, a frail old lady, laying in bed, paralyzed from the waist down. My meeting with her was indescribable: tears came pouring from our eyes, as if we'd made some soulful connection. I held her hand while she uttered something in Vietnamese. With the help of a translator, I found out she was 95 years old and had lived through French colonial rule, World War II and the American War. Despite her tears, I sensed there was little that could faze her. It pained me to know I was only going to be with her for a brief time. But by holding hands and being together at that moment, our hearts spoke much louder. As we bid each other good-bye, she uttered something in French: "Merci, madame." In my heart, I knew I was the more grateful one.

Vietnam Dep Lam (Vietnam is beautiful)

What an amazingly beautiful country! Here were the most beautiful shades of green and blue I had ever seen, from the verdant rice paddies of Tay Ninh, to the gorgeous beaches of Nha Trang, to the aromatic coffee plantations of Dalat - here were colours I never thought existed!

Aside from her physical beauty, Vietnam's most characterizing aspect was her people. Everywhere we went, we were showered with "Hello's", smiles and hugs. The people were very gracious and sweet. I hadn't been hugged that much in 1.5 years of living in Japan! It was a great feeling, for touch is something very human. To reach out physically to people, even to strangers, exemplifies the universal notion of our interconnectedness.

Back in Japan, I know I have to deliver. I feel very privileged to have participated in the sixth Vietnam Education and Children's Project. It was an honour to coordinate and organize something truly worthwhile that will stay with me forever. The kind of volunteer work that we did in Vietnam transcends the old success/failure dichotomy. How can you fail whenever you are giving? The essence of it all was we received more than we gave. Exhausted but exhilarated, we were motivated by the spirit of sharing. We realized that Christmas began not when the gifts were given but when the challenge to love was taken up. Peace and joy found homes in our hearts.

The Project was truly for children, both in Japan and Vietnam. It was dedicated to them, for they are the hopes and dreams of the future. The world over, they are the same. They're happy in their make-believe worlds, and they demand our time, patience and understanding.

When love is the force in our lives, we don't need to worry about a poor performance. When we give, our worth is never on the line. The brightest future of the human race is just a mere fantasy if we only continue to rush about trying to please our insatiable materialistic desires. I don't mean to pontificate, only to appeal. What is a global crisis is also a local one, and, at base, a personal one too. We have to remind ourselves how much we have to give away, and how precious and worthy giving is. This is the force of love, from whence humanity draws its energy and strength. I once heard that "the essence of life is that in a brief moment, we can love some people and some things." There is an absolute and beautiful truth to be found in this statement. There can be no better freedom than to be free to love one another.

For more information about the Children's and Education Project VIII in Vietnam, contact:

Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese
1444 East Erie Ave. Lorain, Ohio 44052 USA

Junaline Banez, International and Cultural Studies Course,
Kyoto Gaidai Nishi High School, 37 Naemachi, Yamanouchi, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto
Japan 615-0074 Tel: 075-321-0712
E-mail: Junaline Banez:


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