Words Cannot Describe
Dr. Thanh Tam with Vietnamese children in Cambodia
How can I possibly share with you the experience and emotions that I have gone through during my 8 days/3 countries trip.
I am not a stranger to poverty, hunger, suffering, loneliness, pain, illnesses, tears, and separation. I knew before the trip that what I will see would be heart-breaking. I know that as a woman and a mother, I will be touched by helpless, innocent, suffering children, that I will cry easily by the sights of their outstretched skinny little hands begging, or their ribs-showing bodies sleeping on sidewalks next to their street vendored mother. Little did I know that what I have seen, especially those eyes, would stay in my mind deeper and stronger.
In Viet Nam, I met, examined, and spoke to all the children at our OBV House. Maybe because they know that I am a doctor, maybe they were told that if there were something bothering them, they could tell me, or maybe their pain are like rushing waves of water overflowing the artificially erected dams, they told me things I did not expect to hear in such a short time of our acquaintances. They shared with me stories and concerns that I wish never should have happened.
One little child of 7 year old easily told me that previously when she was at home, every time her mom went to work and she was home alone, her “neighborly uncle” would ask her to touch him here and there. He also would touch her and make her hurt. She told him that she did not like it, but he threatened to tell her mom on her instead. Her eyes lit up with resolution that she did not like what happened to her. She told me that her private area still hurt like that sometimes when she urinated. Her eyes dropped in shame or shyness when she stated that she continued to wet her bed at night despite trying really hard. “I just do not know why I can’t stop pee’ing at night”, her voice trailed off.
Another very young-looking 19 years old lady who is working as a waitress to help support her family, and is studying part-time, sat down smiling in front of me. “I am very glad to meet you. I know you took off work to see me today. How may I help you?”, I said smiling back to her. Immediately, her smile faded, and her tears started flowing down her cheeks. Her bright eyes filled with gushing tears rolling down her smooth skin. I stayed quiet, leaned forward toward her in recognition of her pain, and waited. After a few short moments, with her eyes looking straight at me, she mustered through: “I had ‘that’ happened to me. I would like to know if my virginity is still intact.”. Of all the pain and suffering she went through, she is burdened by the one thing that should matter the least in her life right now in my opinion. But I understand her. In a traditional Vietnamese culture, virginity is a well-sought standard indicating the dignity and value of a wife that a husband looks for. I gave her as much time as I and other waiting children could afford. She has nightmares at times. I made recommendation that she should continue counseling as part of her treatment plan as well.
In Cambodia, we visited several villages along the Mekong River. The Vietnamese people in these villages are considered illegal aliens. They are not recognized by the Cambodian government, and are, therefore, not entitled to its citizens’ benefits such as education, healthcare, or working rights. The Vietnamese government does not take them back as they do not have documentation to prove that they are Vietnamese either. They are trapped in limbo for over 30 years, and probably many more years to come. One of these villages is known for selling their girls for income. At the age of 13 or 14 years old, girls can be sold to help out families’ finance and status. Depending on the degree of their beauty, their virgin price can be bargained from $300 US to $1,200 US. When they reach adult ages and no longer able to earn higher premium as minors, barring negative physical consequences, they can return home and get married. Men, in this population with unresolvable insufficiencies, may not have much options to pick or choose.
Dr. Thanh Tam and Dentist John Heffernan were examing for an old woman in Cambodia
As we were meeting all the children in one village and distributing snacks, I caught sight of a young girl looking at us from her house leaning along the front post, one among the few skeleton posts holding up the roof. She just looked at us, but did not come to us like all the other children. She did not smile. She did not cry. She just looked with a motionless face. I saw in her eyes, and on her face, a sentiment of hopelessness, of lost, of “so what else is next?”. Then, I noticed that she was pregnant, not too much, just enough to see that her belly is too big for her thin frame of body. When I walked past her to go deeper in the village, she stood there, and followed the commotion with her eyes. Fifteen minutes later, we emerged from the village toward the front, and she was still there – the same pose, the same look, the same hopelessness. My heart ached for her. Either she felt too much, or the pain numbed her. What will happen to her? What will happen to her baby? She was the one person that I could not photograph. I did not feel that I had the privilege nor permission to further insult her pain.
Vietnamese children in Cambodia
There were so many “eyes” that I met on my trip – wrinkled eyes of smiles on old lady with constipation but good health, yellow eyes of lost hope on a man with end-stage AIDS and heart failure, fatigued eyes from lack of sleep on the face of a Bangkok prostitute, darting eyes of competing shopkeepers, tired eyes of street vendors, begging eyes of panhandlers, haunting eyes of despair from youths whose future has no better prospect from yesterday and today, peering eyes of curiosity and wishes from so many children, eyes of hunger and suffering, and eyes of innocence and innocence lost. What I saw so rarely on that trip was eyes of true and lasting happiness.
There were so many children everywhere I visited. What will be their hope and their future?
Do you have an answer for them?
Nguyen Thanh-Tam, MD, FAAP (OBV)