Keith Cousins's Blog

March 7, 2011

Mixed emotions

Back on the bus now, it’s March 9 and I haven’t been able to write for the last two days. Too many mixed emotions. Anger. Sadness. Joy. Happiness. The full range. But now that I am stuck on this bus, once again seeing green vibrant Vietnam through a window, I should be able to process my thoughts a little more. At least enough to satisfy the blog Nazi Melissa, our class’s blog editor.

This is not America. This is not Hanoi. This is not a Travel Channel hour-long special. It’s the Bac Kan province. Brian, a Project Vietnam Foundation (PVNF) dental assistant, told me last night that even people from Vietnam rarely get to see what we see. I am grateful and humbled to have seen it.

The first day of work was intense. An hour-long bus ride through the jungle led us to our first work site. It was surprisingly clean. I felt like maybe the government built it for PVNF before we came. Maybe I am being too paranoid. Maybe.

Party officials were at the site observing PVNF throughout the day. They only allowed the organization three days in the province, which translated to two days of actual work. “Security” was the official reasoning, but it seems as though they don’t want to give the people of Bac Kan too much hope. Tom, the retired engineer who runs the dental team, told me he invited the officials to come see the hard work PVNF does in hopes that we would be allowed to stay. I respect the hell out of that.

Over 100 people gathered in front of the work site to receive care. It was exciting. I was ready to help and there was a real sense that I was about to have an amazing experience. Then the excitement turned into anger.

I quickly realized that these people were not the true poor here. They’re well-dressed by the standards here. I’m no doctor but they looked healthy. Local party officials dole out the tickets to people so they can receive medical assistance. Can you guess who they give the tickets to?

My eyes swell up as I write these words. It’s frustrating. The same people who are oppressing the population and closing the door to freedom are the ones who make sure their friends and family are seen by American physicians.

My classmate Mark was being Mark and snuck away to see the village. He came back crying. Working with him and getting to know him over the last year has made it obvious he has a big heart. I just didn’t know how big. He came back an hour later crying.

“It’s fucked up,” he said. “I saw the people who really need help but they won’t let us help them.”

After lunch I worked with Tom and the dental team. I am blown away. It’s jaw dropping.

“American quality in the jungle,” Tom said

It’s true. The efficiency. The speed. The work ethic. I am really happy that I get to write a story about the work they do.

I realized after lunch that although PNVF mostly sees who the government wants them to see, there are still people who get the chance to get the help they so desperately need. It made me feel the true dynamics of this mission. We scratch their backs a little. In turn, the impoverished ethnic minorities get access to medical care some of them may only have once in a lifetime. There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing this in action.

More to come on Bac Kan. I feel as though I have only skimmed the surface here. Only two days of working in those hills. The amount of feelings and information I am still trying to process makes those two days seem like a lifetime.

Random bits:

  • I lied about the food. It’s actually quite good. A PVNF member told me that the food here is not Vietnamese food. It’s chicken. It’s cabbage. Taking up that frame of mind and trying the food out was the best choice I could have made.
  • “That’s my angel in there,” Tom said of his wife who works with PVNF. Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me, but to be around him and see the love he has for his wife really got to me. It’s true love.
  • We are journalists!
  • Even though I couldn’t read it on Facebook, I got a message through my email that made me melt a bit. It means the world.