After a ferry ride, several bus rides, a 13.5-hour flight, another two-hour flight, and hours of layovers, we finally arrived in our first destination: Beijing. The 15 students and our three chaperones were all in store for an enriching and transformative experience in Asia that brought us closer to one another and to the individuals we will each become one day.
The first several days in Beijing were filled with sightseeing to take in the culture and history of Beijing. Having chaperones with an in depth knowledge of the current state and history of China was a great asset to being able to grasp what it was we were experiencing. Some of the amazing sights we got to experience include: Beihai lake, different markets, The Great Wall, The Temple of Heaven, The Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square and the Summer Palace. With each sight and each moment we were immersed in this amazing and complex culture, we began to get a better understanding of the past that shaped this country, a place so different than many of our homes. We were also fortunate that a few of the members of our group had family that either lived in Beijing, or had great connections in the city, which led to some amazing meals at restaurants most tourists wouldn’t know about. We got to visit the B.C.-China trade commissioner at his office in Beijing, where he told us about his job and answered our questions relating to how governments facilitate trade. This was a great opportunity to witness some of the things we’ve learned about in our textbooks. It was also a good opportunity to learn about the kind of connections Canada and B.C. have with China; this kind of intergovernmental interaction was something we would continue to examine in the Harvard Model United Nations.
We had gathered a well-rounded understanding of China, and were now feeling ready to move on to the Harvard Model UN conference. Each student either represented Pakistan or Liberia in various committees. With all the preparation we had done for the conference, as well as all the additional knowledge of politics and history we had learned in just the few days of being in China, the whole group was feeling well-prepared, excited and slightly nervous for the conference. It became evident that all of our preparation had paid off, as each delegate returned from their committee sessions every day excited to tell the rest of the group about their experience. By the end of the conference our group had been together for over a week and we had begun to form the sense of a unified group, which proved to be very important in the second stage of our journey: service in Vietnam.
After landing in Hanoi in the evening, we were all astonished, just on the bus ride from the airport, at the country. As the bus made its way through a sea of scooters on the streets of Hanoi, we marveled at the amazing architecture and various buildings and sights that we passed. Much like our time in Beijing, we had an opportunity to do some sightseeing, experience the culture and learn about the history before we headed off to the orphanage in Kon Tum.
We had to take a long bus ride to get to Kon Tum, which is a small city in the central highlands of Vietnam, and from the windows of our bus we got to see some of the amazing rural and natural landscapes that make up Vietnam’s central highlands. The orphanage where we would be spending our time was the Vinh Son Orphanage. Vin Sonh orphanage is run by nuns, and many of the children are of the Bahnar ethnicity, now a minority group that face lots of prejudice and unfair treatment in Vietnam.
At the opening ceremony of the Model UN in Beijing, the keynote speaker told us all that “we begin to live when we reach the edge of our comfort zone.” As we arrived at the orphanage and each one of us in our group had to put ourselves out there for this experience, we were all at the edge of our comfort zone. Due to the language barrier, we bonded with the children through the various songs and games that we had practiced before arriving at Vin Sonh. The first thing that was very evident was that, despite their situations, the children at Vin Sonh had so much joy and love. We also got a chance to go to the farms where they grow the food for the orphanage. To get there, we walked through stunning rural landscapes of rice patties, river beds and rolling farm hills that stretch off into the distance. When we finally reached the Vin Sonh farm an amazing meal of traditional Bahnar food was prepared for us.
While at the farm, we got to understand some of the hardships that people at the orphanage and the people in that region face. The last season for the crops had been very dry, so a whole year of rice crops that were to be grown for the orphanage would not be good to eat. Instead, the orphanage would have to go through the much more expensive process of buying rice for the children. Some of the money we raised at school through a Service Day was donated to buy the rice that the orphanage needed for the next year.
They all loved having us at the orphanage because we gave them the attention that they are so often neglected of; the same kind of attention we all receive at home, but often forget to appreciate.
The generosity of fellow SMUS students through our Service Day fundraising and other donations allowed us to also purchase many other much-needed items for the orphanage, including shampoo and hygiene products, flour, cooking oil, and noodles.
After several days with the children, we had formed great relationships with them, which made it comfortable and fun for us when leading games and activities – but it also left us with the dark cloud of the approaching moment when we would have to say goodbye. We organized an Olympic Day in which we took the kids around to different stations where they participated in different games. We also spent some time in their classes helping the kids learn to speak English.
On the final day, the children had prepared to present to us various songs and dances. After many different performances of dance, we all got together in the Orphanage’s main hall to say our final goodbyes. This was a moment we all knew would arrive eventually but it was one we knew would be incredibly hard to face. During this final goodbye I had many children, who I had developed a close connection with, clinging to me, crying and telling me not to ever forget them. I looked around and saw my friends who I had traveled with getting similar reactions from the children. It was at this moment, as we were leaving, that I began to truly realize how sad these children’s situations are. They all loved having us at the orphanage because we gave them the attention that they are so often neglected of; the same kind of attention we all receive at home, but often forget to appreciate.
Living at an orphanage, each child is one of hundreds with only six nuns there to take care of them. I remember my first day at Vin Sonh seeing what appeared to be a sea of children playing all over the courtyard, but through the closer relationships I developed I realized that they are each individuals with beautifully unique virtues and talents, and they just want to feel that they are loved and recognized in this world, something that I’m proud to say that we did. Their tears were because they knew when we left, they wouldn’t get nearly the same level of attention that our group could provide them. I just hope that through my time with some of the kids, I made them realize that they mattered.
Leaving the orphanage, I reflected on how the games we played with the children and the smiles it put on their faces always had to come to an end. I saw that these children would grow up and have to leave the orphanage one day, entering a world where they would face a lot of obstacles simply due to the life they were born into. Although I had heard others talk about such realizations, it only truly makes sense once you have witnessed people facing such hardships. Leaving the orphanage really brought the trip full circle for me – all the learning we do in school, the history and culture we learned about in Beijing, witnessing the lives of people working in governments at the trade commissioner’s office, and the Model UN, it’s all in preparation to one day become leaders in various disciplines so we can try and build a better world; a world in which people do not have to live through the kinds of hardships that we witnessed in Kon Tum.
There was a strong sense of sadness that joined our group on our long journey home. The tone had changed; we had all grown so much closer through this emotional journey we shared. We were all still processing the emotions after our time at Vin Sonh, and coming to our own conclusions of what to take away from the whole experience. But I’m certain everyone left with something more valuable than can simply be learned through books or lectures.
Staring out at the unmistakable landscape of B.C.’s west coast, with forest-covered islands rising above the ocean, forming an endless network of narrow straits behind the backdrop of snow covered mountains, I realized I had returned from my journey, I was back to the world of fortune and opportunity, a world I was so lucky to have been born into. It was like awakening from a dream, knowing that everything I had seen, heard and felt was real, but had passed in a fleeting moment. Having never travelled to a world so different from my own before, it is hard to imagine that these places are still there at any given moment. Visiting Asia at times put me out of my comfort zone, but in the end it allowed me to see deeper into the complexity and beauty of humanity, and recognize the many challenges that all of humanity must face together in the future. Through the smog of Beijing is the same blue sky that hangs over the children at Vin Sonh who just want to feel recognized; SMUS sits under a sky of opportunities, and we must take these opportunities, recognize them and then use them to better our world.