This is the 2nd essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.”
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
We hear and see these phrases so often that they have become somewhat cliché; they are marketable platitudes issued in sound bytes, often accompanied by eye-catching graphics and tightly edited video clips. We’ve all seen them because we share them on social media as inspiration porn. I do it myself. Of course, the words drip from our lips as easily as we click the share or the like button. But talk is cheap—as is sharing. Another cliché, but also accurate.
But how many of us do try to actually make a difference, not just talk about it? To make the world a better place in areas we are passionate about, or where there is a need? How often do we step outside our comfortable, privileged existences to effect change? Real change? We watch and admire others—the few—who do so, and momentarily wish we could be like them before returning to our sanitised lives, safe in the knowledge that someone else is doing the work of improvement. No need to bother, because it’s being done anyway. It’s happening.
I do know someone who is making a difference in the world. A real difference. One man who wanted to improve the lives of young people, to give them hope and real opportunities because they were equipped with marketable skills, skills that are in demand. That man is Jimmy Pham, and the organisation he founded: KOTO.
Jimmy is an Australian, of Vietnamese and Korean heritage, and like many Australian migrants, his family came to Australia from Vietnam after the American War. So many Vietnamese people were displaced in the aftermath of the war, with large numbers deciding to make the dangerous journey by boat to Australia, as well as to other countries like America, Canada and Europe. The risk was worth the reward, although life in Australia was—and is—difficult for migrants. Australia, for all its convict past and egalitarian discourse and anti-discrimination policies, does not generally welcome other cultures with open arms. Our Indigenous population have received—and continue to receive—appalling treatment over the years. I imagine that a young Jimmy would have received his fair share of bullying at school. He would have been acutely aware of his “otherness”, of how not Australian he was. I also imagine he would have been mindful of the sacrifices his family made to give him and his siblings a life in a country where there were greater opportunities for success. I am positive his experiences growing up in Australia were the driving force behind his desire to help disadvantaged youth in Vietnam. And he has been helping them for nearly 20 years, with nearly 700 graduates passing through KOTO’s doors.
I came to Vietnam—and KOTO—to turn my life upside down. In a little over a month, I am succeeding. I have forged warm, collegiate relationships with the staff—for whom I have enormous respect and admiration—and an immense fondness for the students. I have heard snippets of the trainees’ stories: some have deceased parents so have been raised by grandparents; some come from very remote areas of Vietnam and had never seen a blender before starting their training; some are from impoverished areas, with parents barely able to eke out a living; some have slight disabilities. There was even a student who was rescued from life as a sex slave. Some arrive at KOTO with very good English language skills—learned on the street, one student told me—while some are starting English from scratch. Irrespective of how they got to KOTO, the point is they are here. As one volunteer said to me on more than one occasion: Every student is better for having been at KOTO. She’s right. Without KOTO, life for many of these kids would be grim.
I have also heard stories about alumni. KOTO graduates can be found throughout Vietnam, and also internationally. They staff five-star hotels, smaller restaurants and cafés, and branch off into their own businesses like cooking schools and travel agencies. A few have ended up with scholarships to universities outside Vietnam, including Australia. Some even return to KOTO as staff after they have been in the workforce for a while. Know One, Teach One. Every student is better for having been at KOTO.
And it’s not just the students who are better for being at KOTO. The truth is: I am too. I am better for volunteering at KOTO, for being in Vietnam. I am a better person for working with staff from a culture so different—yet surprisingly similar—to my own. Maybe I’m better because I am volunteering in a social enterprise, which I have not really done before—apart from a stint as a language and literacy facilitator at a community centre back in Adelaide. I see staff who love their work, which—irrespective of whether they are in Finance, or HR or Alumni, or the lovely ladies who sweep and clean the building and cook meals for the staff and students, or those at the coal face in Training and Trainee Services—is about the trainees. Their purpose is clear. Know One, Teach One. Every student is better for having been at KOTO.
I am better for experiencing the kindness of the many people I have met in Hanoi, both in general and at KOTO. From Mr Tan, with whom I work closely, who came to pick me up from my apartment on his motorcycle to take me to KOTO because the shuttle bus was being serviced. He often brings me a coffee in the morning because he is that sort of person. And Ms Mai, the English teacher, who is relatively new, and always makes sure I have lunch, and brings me cups of tea when she sees my energy flagging. She helped me and another volunteer organise a taxi to transport our bicycles back to Tay Ho. It would have been a major drama without her. And Ms Leanne, KOTO’s Volunteer Coordinator, who has supported me during my stay with her many contacts, and has made sure I have a social life. She is like a concierge, only better because she is personally invested. Then there was the man who spoke no English but gave me a seat while I was waiting for Mr Tan, the women who pointed energetically to the footpath when I was running on the road, the security man who looks after my apartment building and found a special spot for my bicycle and gave me a guava. And the taxi driver who offered me a biscuit and refused to take a tip. And the bicycle repair shop who pumped up my tyres and fixed a crooked valve free of charge. And the locals who greet me with a xin chau and a smile as I walk around Tay Ho. And the expats who have been so generous with their friendship.
I am better for living more simply, and paring back my life to the basics. I don’t have a car, so I walk, or I cycle, or I take motorbike taxis. I don’t need to own transport because I can get around easily and cheaply here. I don’t just reheat food now: I cook. I use fresh fruit and vegetables and herbs. I am almost vegetarian, and even though I do eat chicken and fish, it is not often. I don’t buy meat to cook: I prepare vegetarian noodle dishes with either tofu or eggs for protein. My freezer contains only bread and some mixed vegetables, not the pre-prepared fish and chicken and potatoes of my life in Australia. And because I don’t work at KOTO everyday, I have time. Lots of it. To start with though, I didn’t know what to do with it, and I wasted it. Now, with the help of my bullet journal, I plan my days and weeks. I’m more productive because everyday I am grateful for the freedom not having a job has granted me. My stress levels have dropped. I can please myself. Even better, I can reinvent myself.
I am better for the opportunities being in Vietnam has provided for me. Within days of arriving, I had an English teaching job. It fell through, but I was ok with that, because I realised (after doing some fill-in English classes at KOTO) that I didn’t want to teach (well, not full on classes, but I’d be happy tutoring). It got me thinking: what did I want to do? Of course, that was a super easy question to answer: I want to write and I want to be a freelancer. I figured that being a tertiary-educated, native English speaker in one of the fastest growing economies in the world would position me favourably and competitively, even at 53! After following up on a lead—and a few emails later—I have a freelance writing gig for Word Vietnam. Huzzah!
So whatever I give to KOTO, I receive just as much back, if not more. I have been given a wonderful gift: that of changing myself. The angry, disillusioned woman of just a few months back has all but faded into oblivion, swallowed up by immersion in a new country and novel experiences. What has emerged is someone who is happy to go with the flow, in whatever direction that flow may take her, and whatever adventures that flow may bring. I have learned to trust again: that people will do what they say they will, that taxis will eventually get you to your destination, that people are inherently good and kind. I have learned the joy of making new friends with so many lovely, diverse people: people I would never have met if I hadn’t have come to Vietnam.
From a few short weeks of living in Vietnam, I’ve come to understand that it’s difficult, if not impossible to carry out a vision to change the world if you aren’t at peace with yourself and your own situation. Recognising this is key: to be the change you want to see in the world, you must start with you. I don’t mean that in a self-absorbed way, but in the “put on your own air mask first before you help others” kind of way. How can you even attempt to fix the world and all its complexities if you haven’t at least tried to fix yourself? Acknowledging that maybe you aren’t as well-adjusted or all-knowing as you thought you were, and that you have flaws and vulnerabilities and that there is a darkness in amongst the light doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human. We are not perfect creatures, none of us are, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for perfection in the small deeds and actions that make up our days. Kindness. Empathy. Respect. Courage. Understanding. Patience. Easier said than done. But endeavouring is honourable. To get up each day and say: Today I will try and make the world a better place by my actions, that’s where the true power of one lies.
And that’s exactly what Jimmy Pham and the staff of KOTO do. Know One, Teach One. Every student is better for having been at KOTO.