Living in a foreign country is one thing, but working there is a completely different story!
Giving me a couple of days to acclimatise, if that is possible in a bustling Asian city, Miss Mai, my local contact, arrived at the apartment to introduce me to my placement at VietHealth. My role was to ‘Anglicise’ project proposals and other funding documents. As my background is in professional grant writing, I was confident that I could add some value. In my naivety, what I didn’t understand was the whole range of other cultural and personal dynamics that would colour the experience.
What I also didn’t know before leaving Australia, was that an additional part of my role at VietHealth would be to teach English to my co-workers. That was more intimidating than travelling to and living in a foreign country! I am the last person in the world who should be a teacher and I always joke that if I taught small children, I would be up on a multiple murder charge before ‘play lunch’! I hoped that teaching adults would be slightly easier.
I was excited to start my first day, a 35-minute walk to the bus stop, a one hour bus ride and then another kilometre walk through narrow twisting, turning streets. Learning to negotiate the frenetic traffic was another skill I had to quickly grasp. I just adopted a confident and determined approach, and stepped off the curb into the traffic. Surprisingly, the traffic simply absorbed my presence and flowed around me, and on its merry way.
I was working with a small team at VietHealth including another volunteer, Bruce from Canada. Unusual for a patriarchal society like Vietnam, my manager was a woman. I soon learned that the organisation’s brief was much wider than I initially thought. Apparently there are whole sectors of society who are simply not on the Government’s radar e.g. people with disabilities, sex workers, women and children living in poverty, homosexuals, and a vast array of diseases that had some quasi-moral implications such as HIV/AIDs and sexually transmitted diseases. Government funds to address these issues were limited or non-existent because the problem did not exist in the eyes of the bureaucrats and politicians. Hence, the need to continually chase funding from international groups such as religious bodies.
The work was interesting and challenging once I got into the correct head space. Not only did I have to try to understand the content of a document, but also the nuance of what they were trying to say. English is a tricky language to use and learn at the best of times, and a few misplaced English words can send the meaning off in a completely different direction. It was fun trying to work that out, and massage it into a format that would be appealing to potential funders.
What I didn’t understand was the way to work. In Australia, running my own business, I guess I can be pretty driven and focussed. My approach to the volunteer role was to try to be of the most assistance and get through as much work as possible. My manager would give me a document, I would edit and return it to them, and immediately be ready for the next task. I am no paragon of efficiency, but this approach completely threw them for a loop. Perhaps they were used to younger, gap-year volunteers and a more laid back approach. I was also unused to the post-lunch nap time. Needless to say, I spent a fair bit of time twiddling my thumbs.
In return, I was thrown for a bit for a loop by my manager. I always do my best to get on with people and am happy to work with anyone, but she seemed to take a set against me. Being a female manager in Vietnam is a rare thing, and I am guessing that, in some way, I threatened her. Yes, I was older, physically taller/larger (not a hard thing to be in Vietnam), and perhaps I was more qualified, but I wasn’t Vietnamese, I didn’t speak the language and I certainly had nowhere near her skills and experience. What was there to be threatened about? This didn’t seem to matter though and she looked for any pretext to keep me away from the office. I was given ‘days off’ and ‘early marks’ on a regular basis. After a bit of pondering and self-analysis, I decided not to take this personally and to make the most of this free time to explore. I was just disappointed that I wasn’t given a chance to make a difference.
Surprisingly, the upside of my volunteer experience was the popularity of my English classes amongst my work mates. After quite a few tips from my teacher-husband, I did my best to design classes that placed English in a context e.g. going to the hairdresser, organising a birthday party etc. I think we spent more time laughing than learning/teaching English, but I was pleased when, at the end of my placement, the students told me that I was the best English teacher they had ever had. Maybe they meant the ‘weirdest’ teacher they had ever had.
Another wild experience was facilitating a strategic planning session between the organisation’s management and various other stakeholders. I do this quite often in Australia, but why oh why did I think (or my manager think) that this would be successful in a foreign country, in a foreign language? I was highly organised, of course, and devised a workshop plan with clear outcomes, but this went completely off the rails within about five minutes. Instead of moving logically through the agenda, the participants – predominantly male – would stand and speak non-stop for 25 minutes in rapid fire Vietnamese. How was I to know whether what they were saying was relevant or important? Or was it just about sounding and looking important? Was it about the Asian concept of ‘face’?
Despite my volunteering role not being as fulfilling as I had hoped, it was a truly eye-opening experience, and the perfect introduction to volunteering in an unfamiliar country. It made me continually question my assumptions, expectations and my way of working. Surely that has to be a healthy thing to do, to shake myself out of the usual humdrum?
And I hope, in some small way, I did make a small difference.
Have you ever volunteered overseas?
What: Volunteering with IVHQ starts from $180 per week, with over 33 countries to choose from.
Where: Living in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi and working in the north-eastern suburbs.
When: I visited in May. Like Goldilocks, not too hot and not to cold but a bit of everything weather-wise.
Why: Volunteering ticks all the boxes of culture, contribution, challenge and friendship.
How: I flew to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines. I am not sure they would be my airline of choice but at least I lived to tell the tale.
Who: Myself, Bruce from Canada, Inge from the Netherlands, and Louise from France.
Related Posts: For a perspective of the domestic side of volunteering, have a peek at my post about living in Hanoi – here.
Related Blogs: If you are considering volunteering overseas, have a read of the pros and cons here: https://www.mappingmegan.com/pros-and-cons-of-volunteering-work-exchanges/