“We can become culturally competent and embrace the rich dimensions of diversity.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Phillip Hwang
Age: 25
Hometown: Port Washington
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Korean (native)
Occupation: Research Assistant at Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences
Past travel experience: Newbie
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Disabled Children in Hanoi, Vietnam
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: June 2015
Claim to fame: Went to kindergarten in England, elementary school in Korea, middle school in Los Angeles, high school in New York, college in Boston, and graduate school in Washington D.C.!

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
My decision to become a UBELONG volunteer and serve for Vietnamese children affected by Agent Orange was prompted by a culmination of several things: my involvement with wounded heroes at Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and seeing the suffering caused by war-related injuries, my grandfather’s service in the army during the Vietnam War, and my research on Agent Orange that revealed devastating consequences for second and third generations of children born to parents exposed to the chemical during the war.

What did you take from the experience?
My experience with the children in Vietnam helped me understand the value of serving the most vulnerable, disenfranchised, and under-served people in our society. While working with a class of students with cerebral palsy, I learned to care for the psychological and spiritual health as well as physical well-being of the children affected by Agent Orange. After riding my motorbike through the chaotic traffic in nearly unbearable heat and humidity, I was greeted by Quan, a ten-year-old boy with moderate cerebral palsy. Quan’s most noticeable features were his stiff muscles and his ears that were attached to the upper part of his neck. When I first met Quan during my orientation, I was startled by his physical deformities.

As time went by, however, my focus turned to him as a person and learning what he needed from me. I learned to pay attention to his body gestures and realized they were queues for his moods. For example, Quan displayed the habit of tilting his head completely back almost to the extent of snapping his neck. As I kept correcting his posture, I realized that he is doing it on purpose. He did it when he was in a good mood and wanted to grab my attention. Although Quan had limited communication skills and I spoke no Vietnamese, we transcended our barriers by connecting through his little game. As we got to know each other, I saw that our interactions had a positive effect on him, and acknowledged that his well-being was not completely dependent on his physical state. I started to be more attentive to everyone in the class and looked beyond their physical and mental disadvantages to care for the entire person.

What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
For a future volunteer, I would like to tell him to have an open mind. By keeping an open mind we can learn to appreciate the little treasures that are distinct to each culture. Throughout my volunteer experience, I noticed many differences between the Vietnamese culture and the culture I grew up in. While spending time with the local volunteers, I realized that we grew up in contrasting environments with different characteristics, yet we became friends as we recognized and appreciated our differences. I have learned that just because people are different does not mean that they are wrong. I believe that as we keep an open mind and respect our differences, we can become culturally competent and embrace the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual.

In a sentence or less, best advice for fitting in with the local culture?
Not wrong. Just different.

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Related post:
Meet Jonathan Thompson, a young professional from Portland, and second time UBELONGer, who volunteered in Cambodia at the caregiving project.