Name: Nini Nguyen
Nationality: United States
University: University of California San Diego
Languages spoken: English, Vietnamese, Mandarin
Past travel experience: Newbie
Volunteer Abroad: Teaching English in HCMC, Vietnam
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: June 2013
Claim to fame: Of Vietnamese origin, Nini was part of the first-ever Alternative Break group from her university to serve in Vietnam.
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
Though I wasn’t heavily involved in the selection of organizations for our Alternative Break service trip, I’m extremely grateful that we chose UBELONG. One of the things that I was most impressed about this organization was how thoroughly they checked in with us, making sure that everything we needed was properly facilitated prior to the trip. I traveled with the Alternative Breaks group at my university, and something that we strive to do is make both a meaningful, and sustainable impact in whichever community we volunteer in. This closely aligned with what UBELONG does. Even though they serve in a diverse range of global communities, at the forefront of their organization is measuring and delivering quality impact. We all returned home feeling like we made a lasting impression.
What is your favorite memory?
When I was in Vietnam, I served at school in a small community in HCMC called Than Da. Throughout my two weeks there, our group was responsible for teaching the children English through interactive activities like music, dance or theater.
One of my favorite memories of my trip has to be on the very last day. We had taken the kids to the zoo, and they performed a talent show for us demonstrating all the things we had taught them. My partners Ryan Huang and Adam Schaar had combined classes and we had taught our kids the Cha Cha slide. In the middle of this zoo, we had about 100 kids and staff dance to this song on a tiny boom box, singing along and counting in unison. It was amazing to see all our hard work come to fruition. In the two weeks prior, we had all been panicking because it seemed like the kids weren’t too enthused about our dance choices –understandable, when their practice arena was in a crowded classroom with 95 F heat.
Yet, when the time came to perform, they all knew their parts, danced, and sang along.
What did you take from the experience?
I certainly returned from Vietnam humbler, and more appreciative of the opportunities that I have. One of my group members had told us during our daily reflection sessions that one of the things he’s most grateful for is that he has the opportunity to use his mind to earn income instead of having to do manual labor, something we saw quite frequently in Vietnam. I definitely valued my education a bit more after returning.
What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
Personally, one of the hardest emotions to grapple with when you’re working in a developing country is pity. Even though I had trained extensively prior to traveling to curb those feelings, when you’re faced with such severe urban and rural poverty, you can’t help but feel guilty. And spoiled. And ungrateful because you haven’t optimized all the opportunities afforded to you.
But to hold on to those thoughts is nothing short of arrogance, because ultimately the presumption behind those thoughts is that these kids aren’t like you. Which is quite contrary to what I found out very early on in our trip. In my classroom, all the girls loved One Direction. My local volunteer guide knew all the Spice Girl songs by heart. A boy in my class had a cell phone, with a picture of an attractive female celebrity as his wallpaper. You’ll realize very early on that even though we’re from separate places and might even speak different languages, these kids are a lot more similar to you than you’d think.
One of my group members told me that even though these kids that we worked with might not have had all the amenities that we did, that doesn’t make them any less happy. And to hold on to those thoughts detracts from genuinely getting to work with them. I had traveled over to Vietnam thinking that I was going to be doing some teaching, but at the end of the day, these kids taught me more than I could have ever imagined.