It was a typical hot Saigon day and I casually arranged to visit the boy and his parents at home. I wanted to take photos for my records and talk to his parents about how well he is doing, how he comes to the art class brimming full of light and promise. How his picture will be exhibited in America- I wanted to make his parents feel proud of their son and be happy to hear some positive news. In my mind I had hoped this news would somehow brighten their day.
We walked up a rickety and treacherous narrow stairs to the loft room, their home. Nothing can prepare you. The room is tiny, indescribably small-the size of a broom cupboard. Thong sits proudly on the floor, we followed suit and sat on the remaining floor space to wait for his mother to come back. As I sat, it felt unstable, like it could collapse. I look around-the walls are shabby, falling apart, no window, corrugated iron, and one small fan-little or no possessions. Behind where Thong sat was 2 shabby, aging large teddy bears-the only sign of childhood. I tried not to look shocked at the utter destitution I was now observing. I wanted to put up a front for Thong to protect him of how I was feeling but I could not. In a way I feel like I failed him, took a bit of his dignity but I am simply not used to this.
We waited for his mother and when she came I was immediately struck by her overwhelming sadness. I tried to break the ice with her, telling her how happy we are with her son, how he is one of our best students and that she should be proud. For a second or less, she lightened but that soon passed. After some time, she crumpled, she sobbed and it was soon clear that she was in an impossibly desperate situation, now alone (her husband is in is 70's and is very sick) she picks up rubbish to sell and earns about $25 a month, which is almost all spent on rent.
My colleague tried to get to the bottom of why things have gotten so despairing for her. The more she spoke, the further her body stooped into a sort of shame as if this situation was any of her fault. Her head bowed and she wiped her tears with her raggedy shirt-I didn’t have a tissue to offer her. I wish I had a tissue. I kept telling her, none of this is your fault, nothing you have done is wrong-try to feel hope and we will do our best to help her.
That was on Friday and it has stayed with me. I am reminded about my own life, how blessed I am to have a family, amazing friends and no matter what I will always have support and love. For some people they have neither.