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Where in the World is Katie O’Brien: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The children at the Dieu Giac Orphanage in Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam ran up to us, grabbed our hands, and pulled us in every direction. They put the stickers we gave to them all over our faces, and we let them. We chased them all over the rusted jungle gym until we could no longer breathe. The children at Dieu Giac Orphanage were just children, the same smiles with missing teeth, and reluctance to quiet down as children in the United States.
It wasn’t until the day after I returned from the orphanage did I hear the phrase “poverty tourism.” In class, I overheard some students discussing how when orphanages in developing countries receive visitors, the children refer to these people as “customers” and essentially “put on a good show.”
This idea made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t know how to react; I thought I was doing a good thing. Now what?
A day prior, traveling in a group of roughly 40 people, we were greeted by the Buddhist nuns who run the orphanage and care for the children at Dieu Giac. They explained to us the children living there range in age from four months to 23 years.
They further explained the children had either been abandoned by their parents due to physical illness, or were unable to afford the child. However, it is not uncommon for the child’s biological parents to visit their children while they are living at the orphanage.
Walking through the gate at Dieu Giac I initially felt a little lost. There were small children whizzing by me, laughing and yelling at each other. There were cartons of vegetables being carried into the center square. It was a lot to take it at one time.
The building is in the shape of a “U” with the boys’ dormitories on one side, girls’ on the other. The center is an open square with a dirt floor containing a jungle gym, two abandoned trucks that the children play in, and benches.
Not even a minute had gone by when I felt a small hand slip into mine. When I looked down, I saw a small girl with black hair and eyes, smiling up at me. I asked her what her name was and she told me it was Wee, (pronounced Way).
That was the only thing I could tell that she understood. From that point on, we were inseparable for the rest of the day. We ran around, pretended to tell secrets, and played handclapping games. It was a day full of laughter, although both of us only knew a handful of words in each other’s language.
Leaving was hard, harder than I thought it was going to be.
I decided to go back to Dieu Giac later in the week with another Semester at Sea group that was going because I felt like the time Wee and I spent together was cut short.
On the bus ride there, I felt even more nervous than I did the first time. Would Wee remember me? Was this idea of “poverty tourism” applied to me? Was I just a “customer?”
I got off the bus and walked through the gate. I looked for Wee for the next half hour but couldn’t find her, I started to feel anxious.
Finally I saw her. She was looking in the other direction so I knelt down and tapped her on the shoulder from behind. When she turned around, she immediately leaped into my arms. Would this immediate reaction happen if I was simply a customer? I don’t think a child could fake that.
I’m not sure if that moment could ever be duplicated. I’m sure poverty tourism exists in some places, but I don’t think that’s what I experienced at Dieu Giac. Kids want to run, jump and play. Kids just want to be kids, and we should let them.