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Humidity, happiness and tears

News story

Fifty-five health sciences students set off to Cambodia, China, India and Vietnam earlier this year to add some cultural flavour to their Curtin learning experience. Peich Boong, a speech pathology student, shares her adventure at the Hoa Binh Social Protection Centre in Vietnam.

Curtin Go Global students entertain children at the Hoa Binh Social Protection Centre, Vietnam.

A voice from Vietnam

At midnight on the first of July, the inaugural Curtin University Go Global Vietnam team departed Perth on an endeavour of unpredictable proportions. A trip that was originally an ‘experience’ to provide sustainable health services to the rural community at Hoa Binh Social Protection Centre, morphed into something that can only be described as an adventure. It was jam-packed with surprises, threaded with challenges, overflowing with laughter and highlighted by small victories and unexpected tears. It may be a cliché, but Go Global Vietnam has matched every possible definition of the term ‘life-changing’.

Upon arrival at Hoa Binh Social Protection Centre (HBSPC), the team faced the challenges of assimilating into a new environment and building rapport with the centre. Comprising administrative staff, directors, medical staff and residents, HBSPC was a full plate, with the works! Throw in a team of eager and ecstatic allied health students to the mix, and the centre was packed to the rafters. Days at the centre were long, hot and unclear. Time would go slow and fast simultaneously. The team worked hard in the first week simply to become familiar with the site, but there were more things to worry about as the first week ebbed slowly away.

Diary entry: 7 July 2015

“Vietnam feels both familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously. I believe that the people make the place, so acclimatising to an environment is more than just getting used to the humidity or becoming immune to the smells. The environment includes its inhabitants and that is the factor that I am having the most difficulty with.”

Almost instantaneously, more issues cropped up the following week, like rice plants sprouting through muddy waters. The team soon discovered the difficulty of communication. Even when armed with very helpful and proficient translators, gathering and sharing information was a tedious task.

Questions were answered with half-truths, information was omitted when perceived as ‘unimportant’ or trivial messages were filtered due to the lack of representative terminology and cultural etiquette. It became apparent that nobody was on the same page. This was by far the biggest and most crucial hurdle we had to overcome.

Working in collaboration with the staff, translators and within our own interprofessional teams, communication slowly became less of an issue as we established the importance of accurate information, purpose and expectations from all those involved. Once the staff started witnessing the progress and purpose of our work, they too started engaging with the team and were quick to take opportunities to learn and implement therapy.

This endeavour occupied the entire length of the placement, as student roles became established and rapports strengthened. The team simply needed to show initiation and confidence in order to kick-start the working relationship with the staff. Although this took a while to develop, it has helped to establish the student roles of future Go Global volunteers.

Diary entry: 21 July 2015

“I believe it is often difficult to accept change when someone simply talks about it, however it becomes much easier to change perspectives when you are able to see it happen.”

Of all the challenges we faced, leaving [the centre] was the most difficult of all. Every day of the final week, we would end our session by reminding them we were leaving. When we first informed one of our clients, a teenage boy with hydrocephalus, he responded with ‘everyone leaves’. This was hard for my team to hear, but for these children it was the hard and simple truth. It really emphasised how the lack of constant relationships, even within the centre with children returning home or getting adopted has been ‘normalised’ by the coming and going of so many people. Even so, the older children are not reserved about forming new relationships and that is something I sincerely admire. How often do people put effort into relationships and friendships that they know will eventually come to an end?

On the evening we left, the centre prepared a wonderful night of food, singing and dancing. Everyone was enveloped in the festivity, so nobody foresaw the tears that followed.

Diary entry: 1 August 2015

“I was shocked, but I wanted to tell them it was fine. I was telling the children not to cry, but in my head I couldn’t rationalise why. I had no real words of comfort. I couldn’t guarantee that we would come back. It was genuinely a sad moment; there were no reasons not to cry! So I did.”

The morning after was sombre. The experience was well and truly over. The last night in Hanoi was spent reliving moments of our adventure and memories of Hoa Binh. We had worked alongside some remarkable people and seen things we would never have had the opportunity to see, had we been in a placement in Perth. The team had bonded over all the weird and wonderful things we had experienced. We had conquered mountains, communication barriers, health scares, and more. As a team and as individuals, we have all done so much, but have walked away with more than we could have possibly given.

Personally, I have felt that the children at HBSPC have taught me to look at the relationships that I form and to appreciate the value of relationships I may have taken for granted. They taught me the value of being generous and friendly, and for that I am grateful. The Go Global program has given me more than just interprofessional skills and an ‘experience’. It has given me a new perspective, a dynamic attitude and a new found compassion to add value to the lives of others.

For all that I have learnt and for how much I have grown, I would like to give my thanks to everyone that I have crossed paths with on this life changing adventure. Thank you for everything.

“We all take different paths in life, but no matter where we go, we take a little of each other everywhere.” ––Tim McGraw

Peich Boong

Final year speech pathology student

Go Global Vietnam (July)

About Go Global

Go Global is a nationally awarded four-week placement program. Students from a range of health courses, including speech pathology, occupational therapy, pharmacy, physiotherapy and dietetics, have the opportunity to travel abroad to be immersed in a different culture as they complete a fieldwork placement at a partner organisation in Asia.

Learn more about the Go Global program and how it is improving lives around the world.