“You may experience severe culture shock (and indigestion) in the first week, but it’s worth it.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Ryan Huang
Age: 19
Nationality: United States
University: Harvard University
Languages spoken: English, Mandarin (advanced), Spanish (intermediate)
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for disabled children in HCMC, Vietnam
Duration: 8 weeks
Start month: June 2013
Claim to fame: A young man of many talents, graduating in neurobiology and studying piano since early childhood.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I decided to volunteer with UBELONG because I was looking to immerse myself in a completely different world. College is the time to learn and experience as much as possible, and what better way to do so than staying in a foreign country? My goal wasn’t to save the world, but rather, to experience international issues firsthand so that I returned a better person. In the process, I would try to make a difference, no matter how small, to someone’s life. UBELONG seemed to me the best organization to volunteer with. By working with local organizations to coordinate volunteer efforts, UBELONG ensures the greatest amount of cultural exchange between volunteers and locals.

What was your impact on your project?
Originally, my project was to care for disabled orphans, many of whom were affected by Agent Orange. After the first week, though, I began taking on other jobs, such as teaching English at elementary and vocational schools. Eventually, I even got to design my own two-week music curriculum for an elementary school. Though initially shocked by the living conditions of the orphans, I soon grew comfortable working in the peaceful pagoda where the orphans lived. I know that many of these children will not live past their teenage years, but happiness is in the moment, and I’m thankful for all the piggy-rides I gave them, all the quiet walks we took, and all the laughter we shared.

I had one particularly memorable experience with a blind orphan who loved music. I discovered this when I saw him tapping spoons, toys, and whatever else against the wall to experience the different sounds that each object produced. I took him aside one day and started clapping rhythms in front of him. Soon, he imitated those rhythms and created his own improvisations, leading to a musical conversation consisting of hand clapping and knee patting. He loved to sing and I would often catch him humming melodies to himself. I’m so grateful to have interacted with him; it’s an experience I will never forget.

Another project I had was teaching English at an elementary school and a vocational school. One day, a teacher at the vocational school asked me to just sit down and have a conversation in English with the students. What started as a routine discussion of daily activities soon turned quite serious. The students, who were aged 17- 24 years old, asked about depictions of sexuality in American television and media versus the relatively conservative standards of the Vietnamese. Next, we talked about Vietnamese politics and international image; I discovered that many did not view too highly of their country and that some had an unrealistically positive view of the West. Lastly, we dove into a difficult discussion on racial stereotypes. I’m not sure how many opportunities these students had to discuss these issues so I was glad to stage a venue for lively conversation.

Though I had never planned on teaching music, the program director in Vietnam noticed that I played an instrument and insisted that I teach music to the elementary school children. Over the course of a couple days, I planned out a curriculum for the kids, ranging from rhythm games to group singing to identification of musical instruments through visual and audio cues. However, I soon had to change the curriculum as I realized that the kids had absolutely no experience with music. They were enthralled by simply pushing random keys on an electric keyboard. I had to constantly re-adjust my course and I’m not sure I succeeded in teaching the students much. However, I’m glad I exposed them to the basic ideas behind music. In the process, I even learned a few Vietnamese songs and games.

What advice would you tell a future UBELONG Volunteer?
It’s possible to teach a wide variety of subjects without knowing any of the native language! All you need is a smile, a sense of humor, some creativity, and lots of patience.

Don’t give up early! You may experience severe culture shock (and indigestion) in the first week, but it’s worth it. The longer you stay, the more idiosyncrasies you discover about a culture and the stronger the bonds you form with international and local volunteers.

Smile. A lot. It helps smooth all interactions.

Hang out with the local volunteers- they often have surprising viewpoints and are dying to know more about life in your country. They’ll also show you the best places to eat and coolest places to see, directing you away from tourist traps and unsafe areas.

Tell me about somebody you met who impressed you?
Ms. Nga Tran was a fellow teacher I worked with at the elementary school. She taught me many games to play with the children to help memorize English vocabulary. She was patient with me when I had trouble communicating to the kids, often translating everything I said. She taught me new Vietnamese words when the opportunity arose. When the time came around to teach music, she had the power to coordinate fifty children in one classroom effectively and efficiently. Unlike so many other teachers in Vietnam, she never raised her voice to discipline children. Rather, through a combination of humor and quiet reprimand, she corrected her students’ behavior. In other words, she was a first-rate teacher and role model for the kids.

What did you learn about yourself in Vietnam?
I learned that I enjoy seeking new sights, smells, and sounds. Though I grew up in the quiet suburbs of Ohio, I eventually learned to love the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. I loved the energy of the country. I enjoyed adventuring into each district as well as outside of the city.

I also learned how important it is to laugh and smile. Through constant language barriers, I discovered that humor and spontaneity were often the best channels for teaching and learning. And, even if I couldn’t understand locals sometimes, at least we could both laugh about it and shake hands at the end.

I loved my experience in Vietnam and I’ll never forget it. Thank you UBELONG for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

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Related post:
Meet Mai Le, a Harvard University undergrad who volunteered with UBELONG in Hanoi, Vietnam on the Teaching English project.