A different lunch on the Mekong River
Before going off to Australia, Heart Guy and I were in Vietnam. On an afternoon, we had lunch with some of the Mekong Delta kids we sponsor. Recalling this lunch now, it amazes me how we could have gone for that extravagant meal at Urban less than seven days later.
I offer my memories of this lunch, and the children who attended, as a snap shot of how bifurcated our worlds can be, how much inequality there is. It’s a pain and bewilderment I can’t grasp, even as I ate the delicious pain perdu in that expensive Australian restaurant. Perhaps you can.
Here are the children and their stories:
On the extreme left is T. He’s 12, even though he looks so small. For most of his life, he’s lived with his grandmother while his mother went off to another city to work. She’s come back to the village though, with her new husband and another child, about 5. After the summer, T will be living with his mother and stepfather. It’s easier to get to his new high school from there. And his mom won’t have to send money to his grandmother for his keep. It’ll be easier for mother. How grandma eats will be grandma’s problem then. Whether T will continue to want to study in his new environment, that’s our worry.
Second from left is H. Three years ago, when H was twelve and entering high school, her family came to us for assistance to buy a bicycle. Without the bicycle, she would be walking 10 kilometres every day to school, down a mud road in countryside dark. It would have meant the end of her schooling. We got her the bike and she’s been doing really well at school since. This year, she’s 15 and grown into an extraordinarily beautiful girl. She came to lunch in a pretty lace shirt, tight maroon jeans and white kitten heels. She’d borrowed her oldest sister’s clothes, she told me shyly. Her oldest sister, a very good student, left school at 15 to work in a hat-factory outside Saigon. H obviously covets the clothes her sister is able to buy. She knows exactly how much her sister earns. We haven’t managed to keep any of our girls in school beyond 15. It’s no wonder we worry if H will still be in school next year, if we’ll still have her for lunch.
Next are the brothers P, the top scholars in their hamlet. Younger P scored almost perfect marks for his school-leaving exam. Older P wasn’t far behind. They’re in town now, preparing for University Entrance exams, Older P to study geography and become a teacher, Younger P to be an accountant. The P’s father only finished primary school, their mother completed Grade 3. Their sister got married the first chance she got. There’s another 2 younger siblings at home, a brother and a sister. They’ve always lived in the shelter of their family, their 2 room house with a front room for guests, a back room for sleeping, a lean-to kitchen with a wood stove, and their fathers’ 2 fish ponds and his two small sugar cane fields. They’re pleasant 18 and 19 year-olds, young for their age. We do hope the P’s get into the university courses they want. We hope, with our guidance, they’ll manage to navigate Vietnam’s 3rd largest city, where they’ll be going to college.
Almost hidden by the P brothers, in a red shirt, is S. He’s another migrant-worker orphan. His mother works in the city while both he and his 3 year old half brother live with his grandmother, a fifty year old woman from the Imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam. How she inexplicably landed in the middle of nowhere is a story she doesn’t want to share. I’ve met his grandmother, a fifty year old who looks older than my 84 year old mother. She’s had a hard life, it’s clear. She’s survived. S is a survivor too, a quiet determined boy who knows what he wants and will stick at it. He chose to sit next to my husband, an uncharacteristically bold move for a countryside child. He didn’t say much through the meal, but he watched, and he imitated my husband’s table manners. That one will go far, we think. We hope.
Of the 3 children in the upper right picture, the two on the left are the D siblings. Their father, D, is a plasterer who’s hurt his back. Construction isn’t doing so well these days anyway in Vietnam, not in the middle of a credit crunch. He comes for lunch, but not his wife. She’s working, he says, shamefaced. D is careful about the amount of help he’ll accept. His son will use his older daughter’s books, he tells us, when we go to the bookstore to get next year’s texts. And the children have both won prizes, free notebooks. He lists what they have, and allows them to buy only what is absolutely necessary. It’s the same for their school uniforms. He’s a proud man who eats abstemiously at lunch. He’s already eaten at home, he says, looking askance at how the children are helping themselves to the fried beef and corn soup. It’s only when we talk about transportation that he bends. The older girl, who’s been in high school a year, has been riding the 7 kilometres on a rickety old bike. It’s not good enough to take 2 children, no matter how skinny. And now, the boy’s going to high school too. We tell him to buy a new bike that the both of them can use, then send the receipt to our administrator. It’s then that he has to confess he doesn’t have the US$ 50 to pay for the bike first. It was ill-mannered and careless of us not to have thought of that. We should not have shamed him.
The older girl on the right of the 2 D siblings is their cousin N. Her mother is a rubbish re-cycler. It’s her father, a lackadaisical lanky man, who ferries her to meetings with us. About a year ago, N’s grades began to drop. She had headaches she complained. Was it her eyesight? A brain tumor? It was calcium deficiency the doctors at the government clinic said. It turns out, N ate rice and soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner most days. “Fish, sometimes. Meat, oh occasionally,” she told me when I asked, as a matter of course. In a flash I understood why her father seemed so lackadaisical. Simple malnutrition. N’s been drinking a tetra-pack of milk a day now for a year and the headaches are gone. She’s 13. She’s doing fine. She wants to be a doctor. We’re hoping she continues to do fine and that she makes it at least to nursing school. Her father, though, still looks exhausted. But, we can only do so much, we tell ourselves. It’s a thought I chide myself for when I bite into my wagyu in Australia… It sounds so singularly false.
The yellow-shirted girl on the lower right is P, a child as happy and open as the colour of her shirt. She’s an only child, well-loved by a stay-at-home father with an amputated leg and an illiterate rough-faced mother who spends her days walking dusty village lanes selling lottery tickets. Love can make up for a lot, we realized, as we watched her giggle, as she dug into her prawn fritters with gusto. Financial assistance is great, even necessary. But love, we realize, is what will give this girl the power to get through her circumstances.
This is also the case with Th, a tiny boy with watchful eyes, the last of the lot but by no means least. Another top student, Th’s father, mother, grandfather and grandmother are all illiterate. They work as day-labourers and rubbish re-cyclers. But this is a child who wants to be an engineer, an artist, a singer. He has ambitions. We hope he’ll fly. Who will guide him though?
The path from primary school to a college degree is fraught with difficulties for these girls and boys. There are the long pot-holed and sometimes mud-flooded country roads they must navigate to go to school. There are the schools themselves, badly equipped. There’s the curricula, a whole bunch of mind-numbing facts they must learn by heart. And then there are the family circumstances, the maimed fathers, the illiterate mothers, the absent parents, the step-fathers, the sheer lack of money. We’ve lost 3 girls already, one to sexual abuse with the lodger at home, one sold off to Cambodia, and a third who ran off to work in a factory because she was ambitious and tired of being poor.
We do what we can. Even when it looks like we’ve failed, that we’ve lost them, I tell myself that God has a plan for each of them. I pray. Sometimes, to forget how helpless we are in the face of things, we fly off to Queensland. We eat ourselves sick. And then we beat ourselves up silly, before we go back on our knees and admit our absolute helplessness in the scheme of things. We lean into faith. We lean in…