Melissa Hoon's Blog

March 3, 2011

Goodbye Orange County, Hello Vietnam

Narita AirportComm. 438T Specialized Reporting students arrive at Narita National Airport in Tokyo, Japan, on March 5. They departed Tokyo, then landed in Hanoi, Vietnam, to work as foreign news correspondents on a medical mission with Project Vietnam Foundation. Photo courtesy Johnny Le

Our class has just boarded our six hour flight to Hanoi from Tokyo. Some of us are exhausted, others can’t sleep, but overall we’re all anxious and ecstatic as hell for the wheels of this plane to finally touch the grounds of Vietnam.

The class has been awaiting this trip since they applied to take the course last fall. We’re excited to utilize our journalism skills we’ve acquired over the last few years. But we’re on new grounds, a foreign territory. We’re no longer writing stories that we covered in Southern California. We’re halfway around the world and anything can happen.

This is the third time I’ve taken Professor Brody’s Comm. 438T Specialized Reporting course, and the second time I will have traveled to Vietnam with the class. Although anything can happen for me as well, I have an idea of what to suspect. I’m anxious concerning my ability to report what I see with enough telling details for readers in the United States (and anywhere else for that matter) to feel like they are seeing what I’m about to see.

My reporting talent is always a concern of mine. But until a few moments ago, it was a small concern, as I just wanted to get the hell out of Fullerton, the mundane city where I was born and raised, and get to Vietnam. My friend and classmate Sophia, who is sitting next to me on the plane, told me she thinks she might cry doing volunteer work on the trip. I told her I wouldn’t be surprised if she does, considering that despite my objective characteristics I possess as a reporter, I broke down on several occasions last year.

Jeff BrodyThis is the second year Cal State Fullerton communications professor Jeff Brody (above) has given his Comm. 438T class the opportunity to travel to Vietnam. Photo courtesy Larissa Bahr

Tears came to my eyes and a lump grew in my throat last year when a Project Vietnam doctor told a small elderly woman with skin shriveled like a raisin that there was nothing he could do to help her. Through teary but hopeful eyes, she told him she came to see him in hopes he could cure her skin tumor. The dark gray tumor swelled above her right eyebrow, emulating a golf ball in size. Hope seized, she walked away dejectedly. The doctor told me she would die within two months.

I followed an elderly patient through his process at the clinic last year. Like the woman with the brain tumor, he began the process hopefully, anxiously filling out his paperwork. The man told the doctor that his entire body ached – inside and out. He explained he probably felt this way because he was constantly starving. His dark chestnut eyes brimmed with tears as he explained his wife was dead and his son worked so they could keep their house. The man spent his life working in rice fields with his back hunched as he tended the rice. I could tell from his inverted shoulders that this had been his life’s work.

The doctor diagnosed the man as malnourished and told him he didn’t have medicine to cure him, but Project Vietnam had a food package for him consisting of noodles and rice. The man’s worried face suddenly lit up with the widest smile I’ve ever seen. He repeatedly thanked the doctor with his smile still plastered from ear to ear, before walking to the makeshift pharmacy to pick up his noodles and milk.

The man’s smile lingered as he left the clinic at least a half hour after his smile first emerged. I couldn’t help but think about how I had at least two dozen packets of Top Ramen in my cupboard and two gallons of milk in my refrigerator at home.

Keith CousinsKeith Cousins, 25, a print journalism major, uses Japanese currency, yen, at a restaurant at Narita National Airport. Photo courtesy Larissa Bahr

At that moment, I stopped taking things for granted. Something like noodles and milk was common to me, yet it was the difference between life and death for this patient. The doctor told me if the man continues to not get enough food and vitamins, he will die soon.

As I recalled these memories with Sophia, I regretted not documenting them last year. The only place these memories were stored was my mind, unable to be seen by anyone else. Last year it was difficult to allocate personal time between volunteering and reporting, so although it should not have been an excuse of mine, it was difficult to produce journalistic work. This time it will be different no matter what. I’ll paint a picture with words so what I experience can be seen by anyone who reads my stories.