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Putting your trip on project status helps ensure the highest quality trip. In this article I will expose key assumptions from my travel experience. Through a critical eye, you can too improve your ability to make the right decisions when designing your next trip!
As a traveler, you are always weighing options and considering opportunity cost for your decisions. If you travel too fast, cost increases and cultural immersion is diminished. Travel too slow, and you run the risk of missing out on the treasures of unvisited destinations.
An old adage of project management insights that you must balance the "triple constraints" - time, cost, and quality. Of course, you are after the highest quality outcome given the constraints of time and money. This truth is present in long term travel as well.
Naturally, the definition of quality is a highly personal matter! Nevertheless, here are a few assumptions I made that have turned out to be false:
ASSUMPTION 1: There is a single "best style" of travel for you.
In planning our trip, Luz and I were often at odds with what served as a priority in our itinerary. Was it country count, flexibility in itinerary, travel by land or air? Well, we have disagreed on all these points, and more...
Here I want to address the speed of travel. So what is the right balance? Is it best to saddle through or settle in?
In the last 9 months, we have seen the extremes of a 5 week whirlwind tour of India, and a 3 month stay in Beijing.
To be sure, 5 weeks in India was stimulation of the senses! We experienced everything from the potent smell of street side urinals, to the rich regional diversities in food, language, religion, and garb. We were privileged to absorb this intensive (and exhausting) sprint from New Delhi to Trivandrum. Our pictures are vibrant, and we often share passionate exchanges with friends over the powerful personal impact of these few weeks.
By contrast, our time in Beijing China has renewed an understanding of the powerful lesson of "being time rich." Living in 北京, we have a handful of (6) language exchange partners. Through our interactions with these new friends, and by indulging in the local cultural events, we have been able to establish a more intimate relationship with China.
So far we have satiated our curiosity through local film, cooking (in class as well as visiting the humble Hutong abode of our friend Lily), the Great Wall, a kung fu show, an introduction to traditional chinese medicine, learning historical stories and their impact on values, idioms, and customs, a tea ceremony, written characters 汉字, traditional ink painting, knot making, taking an active role in a local community play, and a trip to the Peking Opera.
The truth is that there are tangible benefits in both styles of travel, and now more than ever, I appreciate the depth and breadth in each travel style.
ASSUMPTION 2: Tours are for fools.
Often pre-arranged tours are expensive, and the expense can seem unjustified; especially if you have time on your side. However, being a Tourist isn’t always a bad thing! Recently, Luz and I placed a deposit on an Intrepid tour from St. Petersburg to Istanbul.
In the previous 8 months of travel, we have almost exclusively elected to arrange our own transportation, VISAs, and a fully customized itinerary. As a result, we have frequently felt pressed for time. It turns out, arranging these logistics is very time intensive. I feel this cannot be understated! In making our decision to go on this tour, we decided that having the relaxing comfort of logistically simplified journey was worth the investment!
ASSUMPTION 3: "Must see" is the best course of action.
Travel guides are written from the perspective of the short term traveler. These guides espouse must see advice without any real perspective on where you have been, what you have seen, or what you value!
In a recent trip to a "Must See" Buddhist temple, I found myself exceptionally disillusioned by the underwhelming site. So traveller beware, without a real appreciation for your version of high-quality travel, your next "Must See" might turn out to be just another church, temple, or overly crowded tourist trap!
Be mindful of which resources limit your adventure (time vs. money). If you are like me, then you value a range of unique experiences, and consider high-quality travel to include deep and wide exposure to your chosen destinations. Consider mixing up travel speed and how you arrange logistics. Be sure to strategically align your itinerary to your recent
experience (and future itinerary), and weigh your highest values to design the highest-quality travel project. Don't feel obligated to visit "Must See" sites that pose to add little value given your own personalized definition of quality.
Regardless of how you elect to travel, I am sure you will have a rewarding travel experience; however, through an awareness of false assumptions, your highest values, and your limiting resources - I believe you can optimize the rewards of travel.
I wasn't sure what to expect upon arriving in China. The truth is that this part of our journey around the world was almost strictly Matt's choosing. On some subconscious level I think I dreaded coming to China, fearful that I would hate it. I feel silly admitting this, but while the initial plan was that I get TEFL certified prior to arriving and teach Chinese for 6-12 months while Matt learned Mandarin, the time frame quickly turned in to 3- 6 months before settling on the least amount of time that both Matt and I could agree on. So, three months of language study it was!
Where did this fear come from? Maybe it was the sensationalized media coverage of China's ownership of US debt, or the incessant soundbites associating "poor quality", "unsafe", "unhealthy", or "hazardous" with Chinese made products, or the fact that popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and even Google (sites) are blocked by the Chinese government that shaped the fear. Every reason I can come up with sums up to ignorance.
I have childhood memories of jokes told within the Mexican-American community that mock the Chinese language with racist punchlines. The first thing I realized after arriving in China is that (at least Mandarin) Chinese sounds nothing like I thought it did!
After only two and a half weeks in Beijing, I find myself fascinated by a language and culture I had no intention of learning just a couple of months ago. I'm surrounded by more than 3000 years of recorded history, "as many small hutongs as there are hairs on an ox" to explore, embracing neighbors eager tohave a conversation, delicious food, and over 200 Chinese character flash cards to study (already!).
Beijing as a city feels very alive. The old and new generations seem to harmonize through mutual respect and reverence for the rich history of the city and the nation.
The conversation between Matt and myself has shifted to, "maybe we come back to China after Thailand".
Starting in April we will begin our 3 month intensive Chinese language study with Hutong School. In preparing for the challenge of learning Mandarin Chinese over the next three months, it has become apparent that defining quantifiable goals, establishing a sense of commitment, and ensuring periodic evaluation of my progress will go a long way toward securing a positive attitude, sense of urgency, and high level of motivation.
So with this blog post, I am sharing my list of goals, and establishing a means for periodic evaluation. Here's the plan...
I will make a bi-weekly update on my progress, challenges, and successes. I will also make (at least) a monthly video update to evidence of all my newly acquired language skillz!
Here's what I plan to accomplish:
1. READ: Recognize at least 600 characters, and be able to read the news paper well enough to get the gist of what is written. Spend 20 minutes to thoroughly read a newspaper page with fewer than 20 words looked up.
2. WRITE: Ability to communicate well enough in written language to have applied for language courses, and hold standard email communications.
3. SPEAK: Practical conversation skills including - What do you do? How is the weather? Where are you from? Restaurant & travel necessities, basic politics, business, family, etc. such that I can speak with a native Mandarin speaker for up to one hour comfortably. I will also be able to hold a phone conversation.
4. LISTEN: Understand some basic traditional music, watch the weather channel, listen to the radio, and make a travel booking. Watch a movie and understand it.
5. OTHER: Speak to Luz during travel in Chinese as we have used Spanish in Asia - basically to obscure communications so that we can freely discuss price negotiations, plans, etc.
Back in September of 2011 (before we set off) I got to thinking about what I might miss most during our RTW trip. I made a list of the top ten things I expected I'd miss, and at the time briefly pondered whether the list would prove an accurate reflection of reality during our travels. Entering our sixth month of travel, I reflect on the original list below.
Yup! Corn tortillas are my bread :) There's (normally) always a bag of corn tortillas in my refrigerator, and it was common for me to eat them at least once a day back home. Do I miss them today? Yes! We've spent a majority of our time in SE Asia and India where most foods are rice or wheat based, and I've discovered it's not just tortillas that I miss, but all corn based foods and products! OK… maybe a broader and more accurate description… I miss Mexican food.
9. Season 6 of Dexter
I know, I know… the show is practically done… I mean how many more kills can Dexter get away with, right? The guy's been married, widowed, had several flings, and a few kids… not to mention a mere 10 ft and a curtain away from being caught by his sister at the end of Season 5. What else could he possibly juggle to make his serial killing persona humane and likable? Do I miss Dexter today? Well- it turns out that in SE Asia you can purchase a full season of any American TV series within days of the season finale (GENIUS!). So… no, I don't actually miss Season 6 of Dexter because I have seen it!
This is a tricky one. When I originally listed "routine" as something I would miss, I was thinking more along the lines of "work life". The truth is that in the first couple of months of travel I actually had a few dreams about work and on some level I spent the entire first month on the road living like I was on vacation from work and not traveling long term. Do I miss routine today? Kind of… I don't miss the work routine, but I do long for a slower pace and a stronger bond with community when blazing through certain destinations (such as our 5 week, 14 city tour of India!).
7. My pillow (and bed)
Down comforter, 600 thread-count pillow case and sheets, and a Tempurpedic mattress certainly make for a heavenly sleeping experience back home. I'm surprised to say, however, that I don't miss my bed. I freaked out about the dirty mattress I slept on in Roatan (and the roach that cruised across my chest!), wished the one inch mattresses in the Everest region were thicker, and couldn't believe the stiff boards used in Vietnam qualified as mattresses at all- but after sleeping on countless surfaces since then, I'm convinced I could sleep on a bed of rocks (slight exaggeration). I can't remember the last time my neck and back longed for the Tempurpedic and down pillow.
6. Facebook, Twitter, and online news
Who was I kidding, huh? I had this crazy idea before starting this trip that the Internet was not as accessible in developing countries as it is back home. Though WiFi is not always available, the Internet seems accessible through a plethora of mediums. As such… my hyper-connectivity has not allowed me to miss out on FB gossip, the Limbaugh controversy, or the race for the Republican Presidential nominee.
I'm not certain why this made it on the list to begin with as I don't think driving is particularly fun even in the US. It may be that I was feeling melancholic about the recent sale of my Audi. Regardless, I did expect that not driving would create a "comfort inconvenience". Not having control over travel routes to specific destinations and cramming in to a minivan, bus, rickshaw, train, or boat would be a hassle wouldn't it? Sharing the two steps leading in to a crowded bus with seven other people (two of which hung their bodies outside of the bus and really only placed a single foot on the steps!) in Nepal did not make for the most comfortable of bus rides, but there was a certain amount of adventure in the experience! I can't say that I miss driving.
4. Friends & Family
Unavoidable. Friends and family (including our dog Covey- listed as #1 below) is what I miss most on this trip. Though I love the convenience of Facebook, Skype, email, etc., I hate finding out that another relative is pregnant, a friend has been accepted to law school, or a family member has just passed away through these mediums (ugh!). I miss my mom's delicious home cooking, hours of gossiping with friends from work, and sharing a meal, drink, or cup of coffee with a friend.
3. Hot showers
I'm inclined to say that I'm not missing hot showers, but this is only because in Cambodia where it's unbearably hot and humid (some would argue that this is NOT the "unbearably hot" season, but when you're not paying for AC…), I prefer a cold shower. The reality, though, is that while trekking in the Himalayas I took a single shower in 14 days (and maybe 5 showers in 30 days) because the cold shower thing was BRUTAL. Gone are the days of guaranteed 20+ minute hot showers, and yes, this I miss.
With the exception of our time in Honduras and India, where often more English is spoken than the otherwiseofficial language, we've struggled to communicate with locals in their native language. Instead of missing English, however, I've found myself thoroughly enjoying a "Google Translate" conversation with the Vietnamese owner of the coffee shop across the street from our hotel, excited about exploring the universal pseudo-sign-language exchanges for "bill please", "where can we find food", and "how much", or thrilled to use the "order by random selection" method to achieve trying something new. I'm amazed at just how much two people who don't speak the same language can communicate (as well as how much you can miscommunicate in a 50 minute "Google Translate" conversation!). And since I always have Matt to communicate with in English (and often Spanish). I'm not missing English at all!
OK. I always knew this one wouldn't change. On the road for just a few days I was already missing our doggy. When I think of "home", his is the image that immediately comes to mind.
Today I am going to share how I got paid to go on a city tour and shop
in Kochi. Using this method, you can learn local pricing of souvenirs (which will improve my negotiation stance for future purchases), make some local friends, and turn an otherwise frustrating tourist trap on it's head.
Before I tell you how, let me introduce the travel hacker mindset...
In a past life I was paid by Government, Financial Institutions, and Global Enterprises to systematically break systems.
Here's how it works:
1. Frame the problem
2. Identify a hypothesis
3. Test the hypothesis, and adjust as necessary
Frame the Problem
Taxi drivers are often compensated for taking tourists to souvenir shops, hotels, spice markets and local businesses. This has incentivized taxi drivers to take indirect routes to final destinations by conveniently passing and sometimes even stopping at undesired way points suggesting that you "just take a quick look."
Identify the Hypothesis
In this case, my hypothesis is that "by applying creative examination of tourist traps, a traveler can reap the benefits of the trap."
Test the Hypothesis
The test is based upon a simple systems principle which asserts "every system requires inputs and provides outputs." The inner workings of the system are not necessarily important. For now let's call the system a black box.
To test this black box you need only identify the range of possible inputs, observe the resulting output, and select those inputs resulting in the outputs most beneficial to you. The process is simple and repeatable, and it applies to real life too!
With the poorly incentivized taxi drivers, I suggest the possible inputs are available:
- Don't take a taxi
- Negotiate a pre-paid fare
- Run the meter (not recommended)
- Offer to pay substantially reduced fares and agree to stop at an undesired waypoint
- Offer to split the incentivized pay with taxi drivers, and visit as many "tourist traps" as possible
I chose to conduct a social experiment opting for the the last offer.
Result: I immediately found a driver willing to pay Rs 500 to go shopping at 10 stores of his chosing, and see the city in the process. Later, I found another driver who agreed to visit three (3) shops in exchange for Rs 100 and a trip to the bus station. I got the Rs 100 up front. Once we finished visiting the shops he flagged a local bus going to the main bus station which cost me Rs 5 (not our deal). In the end I profited Rs 95 for 10 - 15 minutes worth of shopping... not bad.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what you consider to be "getting the most from your travels?"
I believe that the local experience is one of the most rewarding gifts of travel. In my opinion, a local experience can come in many forms. Being taken to a local hangout, beach, or view point that is off the beaten track, indulging in the wisdom of elders over coffee at a cafe, playing games with children, attending a small town festival, and sharing a meal, tea, or slice of watermelon in the home of a local resident are some of the local experiences I cherish most from my time in India.
Leaving home and hoping for these opportunities is optimistic, and helpful - but I suggest that travelers can cultivate and nurture deeply rich cultural experiences. Here are a few things that you can do to pro-actively promote meaningful interactions with the local experience:
1. Connect with your network
The quickest and easiest way to guarantee a local experience is to connect with your network. When visiting a new region, let your friends and family know with some notice. Ask directly if people have contacts at (or near) your destination. I have found this to be particularly useful in larger cities where a fast paced lifestyle and high volumes of tourism are prevalent. In these environments a local experience can be elusive. Even with recommendations from friends it is important to clarify what you are getting an how much it will cost. As you balance cost and value with relationships and cultural perceptions this can be a fine line to walk.
If you don't already know someone, you will have to meet some people once you arrive. The easiest thing you can do is smile. A sincere smile universally transcends language and cultural barriers (careful with this one ladies). No one wants to deal with grouchy visitors.
3. Make time to get rural
Building time into your itinerary to get away from metropolitan cities, lonely planet "top picks," and other frequented tourism hubs can be a fun way actively find the local experience. Sometimes this means you plan your activities intending to chat with locals, travelers, shop keepers, and hotel/restaurant staff to get an understanding of how exactly you are going to take the path less traveled.
4. Talk to fellow travelers
I have observed that even just 10 years ago the traveler community interacted differently. We were connecting in hostel lounges and kitchens rather than Facebook and Twitter. We carried thousand page guide books rather than iPad2 and Android phones. Nevertheless, chances are good that the people sitting next to you during dinner are probably ecstatic to share with you a wonderful experience, favorite hotel, or tip to enhance your travel... all you have to do is ignite that conversation with an invitation to talk. Their information is usually more current, accurate, and specific than that forum post or guide book you just referenced.
5. Consider a home-stay, bed and breakfast, or CouchSurfing
If you are ready for a change in pace, check out a home-stay, b&b, or surf some couches. These accommodations derive their value by providing home cooked meals, exceptional hospitality, and local contacts.
6. Get creative
Finding creative, productive ways to engage locals is challenging, and rewarding. This week I have been thinking about seeing the world through the eyes of a child. It is easy to lose sight of that curiosity that characterizes being truly "present." Today, I enlisted an expert. I invited a 10 year old boy in a rural town to spend the day sight-seeing with me. Now, there were obviously circumstances that made this an acceptable query. The day was beneficial for us both. My new friend Ragesh proved knowledgeable of local flora and fauna by pointing out coffee trees, cardamom, various tea leaves, eagle nests, local fishing spots, favorite fruits, and scenic overlooks. Spending time with him gave me a reason to ride elephants, have a pellet gun shooting competition, hike in a "no trespassing" area, ride a pedal boat, and taste honey directly from honeycomb.
When we got back to town, his family graciously invited me to have dinner at their house where I transferred copies of the day's photos to the computer in their living room. I am certain it was a day that neither of us will soon forget!
7. Travel solo
Traveling with your partner is stacked with benefits; however, one simple fact is that traveling solo makes you more available. A few days ago I was out just after dark struggling to purchase some soap, and just that very moment a gentleman approached and help with some translations. Soap in hand, I could have headed out the door and called it a night. Instead, I engaged in conversation with "Thapy" and seconds later I was in his house meeting his family, and sharing a watermelon smoothie in his living room.
If you treasure the local experience as I do, I am confident that by consciously inviting the world into your heart with these seven (7) techniques, you too will have a more fulfilling local travel experience.
In marriage, safety, security, love, respect, dignity, and trust are just a few necessarily sufficient elements for a successfully functioning partnership.
I will postulate that encouragement, affirmation, and most critically forgiveness, are some of the goals which support the objectives of marriage. If you don't properly encourage, affirm, and forgive yourself - you cannot give these gifts to your partner. Stated more simply, you cannot give what you do not possess.
A study of forgiveness provides evidence that we must embrace Awareness, Acceptance, and Asking for Help. In asking for help, Michael Dawson highlights: "At some point we must welcome the help that is present for all people all the time, but which we often forget is there: your inner guide, higher self, angels, spirit, soul, Holy Spirit, God, Jesus, Goddess, or whatever name you give it."
Regardless of the name you choose, Faith is inextricably pertinent to complete forgiveness of yourself, and ultimately others. It seems "to get Faith wrong" would be a terrible tragedy, yet to stagnate on the topic may be equally as detrimental (without faith, forgiveness is besieged).
In the end, it is clear that Faith is critical to marriage because it is the enabling force of forgiveness. Studying the topic of forgiveness (and therefore faith) has resulted in an inevitable examination of my personal beliefs and values. What is worthy of my faith? What is the source of my faith? Why can so many believe so differently?
For now, I don't know all the answers, but what I can say for sure is that taking a sabbatical and examining the lives and texts which comprise Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam has already expanded my world view and improved my marriage.
As a traveller, you will be exposed to scams, unfair pricing, and people living in extreme poverty. These financial truths affect you mentally and emotionally. This is my three (3) point strategy for promoting inner peace and maximizing travel benefits.
Let’s first imagine a few scenarios. Have you ever taken a cab from the airport and discovered you overpaid for your transport, or purchased an item in a market and later wondered if your negotiation was adequate? Have you experienced emotional discomfort after refusing to give money to a street child, or paid a substantially higher price for a handicraft because you knew the proceeds would benefit the under-privileged or disabled?
The way you spend your money during travel will have certain undeniable affects on your emotions and thoughts. While there is strong evidence to suggest that travel influences life in powerfully positive ways, I believe that it is critical to synthesize a variety of Stressful Experiences Associated with Travel to actualize these benefits.
In the following sections we will examine psychological phenomenon, and derive practical steps to help nurture a healthy traveler’s mind and maximize how much travels benefit your life.
Understanding the relationship between your money and your feelings is an important first step in creating a strategy to pro-actively promote the healthy traveler’s mind. In my experience, three phenomenon are predominantly responsible for the unrest we experience: dissatisfaction, regret, and dissonance.
One study on Consumer Behavior in Travel and Tourism identified seven (7) dimensions of consumer dissatisfaction. Several of these dimensions are apparent as we explore commonly experienced travel occurrences including taxi fraud, and unfair pricing differentials.
For me, one of the most stressful recurring travel challenges is the disorienting airport terminal exit. The typical confrontation is characterized by a sea of new faces screaming to discover where you are from and where you are headed. I have, more than once, concluded that getting from the airport to my hotel should have been cheaper than the amount surrendered. In every instance I was a victim of dishonesty and poor service quality as cab drivers exploited an information asymmetry. And each time this happens, I find myself angered to know that the first exposure to my new host country is tainted with the explicit violation of my trust.
Another equally distasteful experience is paying more than the locals for an equivalent good or service. Common examples include public transportation, meals, and souvenir purchases.
Nevertheless, dissatisfaction in its many dimensions ultimately serves to distract us from fully synthesizing our travel experience, and so we should avoid dissatisfaction.
Regret is defined as a negative, cognitively based emotion that we experience when realizing or imagining that our present situation would have been better had we acted differently.
Regret crops up on travel all the time. Constrained by time and money, we are continually left wondering if one decision or another would have produced a more rich, fulfilling, cultural, euphoric, or otherwise satisfying experience.
No matter how long we have been travelling, it seems we can always feel as though there was something else we would have liked to experience. In fact, most travelers admit that the more you see, the more you realize how much more there is out there!
A common traveler’s mantra is Carpe Diem or “sieze the day.” In order to fulfill this slogan, by definition we must be “present.” More precisely, we must not be occupied with thoughts of regret.
Cognitive dissonance is a state in which people are observed to undertake mental gyrations to reconcile conflicting thoughts. For example, a well-to-do person might think that she or he is a good, generous person, and yet refuses to donate money or food to a begging child on the street. How do they reconcile the cognitive dissonance? For some, they perceive the beggar as evil, lazy, or otherwise unworthy of help. Alternatively, they reason that sparing a few rupees contributes to a systematic enabling of child exploitation, a practice they do not condone.
Another great example of cognitive dissonance is presented by Andy Jarosz in his article on Why Other People’s Holidays are Always Great, where he helps us reconcile the difference between the fantastic stories we hear from those who have returned from their breaks and the miserable faces that many of the same people wear while they are actually enduring their holiday.
Here again, it is important to note that a distracted mind is unable to synthesize the travel experience. In otherwords, by thinking too much we don’t optimally enjoy our travels, and learn from the lessons presented to us.
Earlier we abstracted dissatisfaction, regret, and dissonance within several common travel spending scenarios. Logically we concluded that if we can reduce their effects on our psyche we augment the benefits of travel. In this section we will focus on highlighting practical steps to diminish dissatisfaction, reduce regret, and denounce dissonance.
Avoid the Relativity Trap
Focus on what the money means to you globally. In other words "what is a 30 rupee tea compared to a $5 chai latte at Starbucks?"
Own Your Destiny
A Duke University Study found that "Persons characterized by greater control over their destinies and effectiveness in life are not likely to permit themselves to experience (or even acknowledge) great upset during buying activities, nor in other personal affairs, for that matter." In this regard, by taking responsibility for your future you can experience less dissatisfaction and more joy.
Do Your Research
"People can still feel regret if they put forth cognitive effort but are still dissatisfied with the product," Park said. "But consumers can feel less regret if they decide 'I've done all that I can' instead of 'I should have done more and this is my responsibility.'" So it is important to have done diligent research to ensure that you understand your product, and reduce the potential for regret.
By ensuring your negotiation skills are sharp, and adapted to your local environment, you can eliminate the cycle of thoughts that make you wonder if you paid too much. When haggling be flexible and polite; remember that the small difference in money saved probably means more to a local family in a tough economy.
Appreciate Your Priviledge
While you may be paying more than a local, your currency is often stronger. It is important to realize that the principles of market justice such as "things are worth exactly what people are willing to pay for them" and "to each what his/her market-determined purchasing power permit him to buy"? are the same principles that promote a strong valuation of our currency ultimately determining the prices we pay while travelling.
Wash Your Hands
The simple physical act of washing ones hands can have a cleansing affect on our psyche.
So go forth, engage in resolute, peaceful spending, and enjoy every minute of it!
Volunteer Center #1:
Trung Tâm Phúc Tuệ (Phuc Tue Center)
"Dress simple", we were told, "the kids are very curious and like to pull at things". That's easy enough, I thought, we didn't really pack anything fancy. "And be aware that you could come home with bruises", said the second volunteer coordinator, "the last volunteer had a difficult time volunteering at this center and always had bruises on her arms."
What?! This was our introduction to Phuc Tue, the center for kids with cognitive disabilities such as autism, Down-Syndrome, and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder that we would volunteer at on Mondays and Fridays for a month in Vietnam.
I showed up to our first morning of volunteering feeling a bit apprehensive. I guess I expected kids to come running up to me with fists waving, ready to attack and bruise me. I had never worked with special needs kids before this experience, and hence did not have a clue.
There are four classrooms at this center, and that first Monday morning both Matt and I worked with the classroom reserved for the youngest kids. We weren't asked to do very much, and simply spent a couple of hours playing with kids-- jumping and dancing around. And though kids did come running up to me, it was mostly to hug or hold hands. At some point the two teachers in the room asked us to teach them (teachers, not students) Salsa dancing, and we did. Suddenly the two teachers became four, and I wondered if we shouldn't be trying to teach the students instead. Gradually, I drifted out of the Salsa circle and in to the mix of playful kids.
At 11.30AM we helped the staff feed the kids who required assistance, and then we were off on our own lunch break. We walked down the street and around the corner to discover a lake that mirrors the affluent area of West Lake on the opposite side of the road. Here, we found a coffee shop and sat to enjoy a cup of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk (the way it's served in Vietnam). Matt and I discussed the morning experience, and both decided there was no need to worry about bruising.
After a long lunch break, we returned to the center at 2.30PM. The kids were just getting up from their nap time, and we were asked to join a different classroom. Our volunteer coordinator would not stay, but in her place were two university students who spoke English and would help us communicate with the classroom teachers and students.
I was paired with a student volunteer, Tung, and asked to help in classroom 4. Matt joined classroom 3 with the second student volunteer. The students in this class covered a wide age range it seemed. From about 9 to 16 or so. I couldn't tell that there was any instruction going on, but was asked to help a particular student with his assignment. This little guy would become one of the kids I held dearest at this center.
His name is Thanh, a 9 year old boy with bangs and a shaved head who wore a tiger print jacket with a tail sewn to the end of it. I sat down to help with his assignment of tracing the number five in a workbook. He seemed to be doing just fine in this endeavor, and I wondered exactly how I might be helpful, when the teacher snapped a ruler on the desk in front of him and yanked his pencil out of his left hand, replacing it in his right hand. I'm not sure what startled me most, the snap of the ruler or the fact that this kid was being forced to write with his right hand when he was clearly left handed. I tried asking the teacher why he was forced to use his right hand, but my attempt to communicate was futile. I turned to my partner volunteer and asked him the same question. But even that exchange was short and forced. I was told only that writing left handed is not allowed. But Matt is left handed, there's nothing wrong with it!
I wondered if this was one of those cultural differences I should not argue with. Worse, I wondered if this student's only reason for being held at this center was that he writes more comfortably with his left hand. I sank on the bench I shared with him, thinking his education is and would continue to be incredibly short changed for it. Here he was spending a couple of hours forced to train his right hand in tracing, when he should be learning, well what do kids learn in fourth grade? Maybe the multiplication table if he were in the US, but here, the focus was not even the simple addition of numbers that sum up to the number 5, because even this was considered too advanced for him.
The volunteer coordinator came back to get us at about 4.30 PM, and we walked back to our hotel. I talked to her about this experience. She explained that the kids at this center have all been rejected from public schools and have no other place to go. Though there are other centers for kids with cognitive disabilities in Hanoi, they are more expensive and the families of those kids who attend Phuc Tue cannot afford those centers. The center is understaffed, and so the teachers do the best they can to teach at various levels in their classrooms. And though she agreed that it is wrong to force a kid to write right handed, what was the alternative for this student? I cried. I felt awful. I cried for the lack of education this very able student would receive, I cried for the lack of opportunities that all of the students at the center would have in life, I cried because I too had taken the pencil out of Thanh's left hand and in that way had embodied the same rejection.
I would visit this classroom often during the next month, and resolved after that first day, to concern myself only with sharing as much love and acceptance as I could with the kids of Phuc Tue.
It was incredibly difficult to ignore my judging mind while I saw students dropped off in a Lexus SUV or a Mercedes Sedan, or a student missing from class for over 45 minutes without acknowledgement from the teachers, an entire two hour lesson spent helping kids off the floor and keeping them from hurting each other, a teacher interrupting a lesson to show off her new boots to the others while another student was being punished for walking indoors with his shoes on.
It was frustrating not being able to do much more than show up to this center, but for the first time in my life I understood the value of showing up, holding a person's hand, and sharing an embrace.