When, in February 2017, I was told I would leave for Vietnam, my first reaction was to search for more information on the internet. I was unable to even locate it on a map of Asia! It was a dive into the unknown, to the Far East and its mysteries.
But this departure, for me, came at a good moment: I had just finished a degree in history without really knowing what I would do next, and I needed to take some time away from my usual environment, to turn my life towards others without being bogged down by my daily routine. Like most of the other volunteers, I wanted an open-mindedness, to discover a different culture, to serve others, discover my inner-self, learn, mature. An enticing list, full of promise, with the appeal of being able to tell my story when I returned after spending one year at the other end of the world, tanned by the tropical sun. I signed without hesitation.
Once my week of training was finished, I had to wait for five long months before leaving, in order to finish my year of studies. As I was getting impatient, I tried to learn some Vietnamese, and discovered that it would be a real challenge to pronounce the words correctly. I also informed myself about the care center: the center housed around 80 children and adolescents from poor families, to give them a stable education and give them possibilities for employment once they became adults. I was impatient to realize this otherwise abstract idea.
Finally, in July of 2017, I was ready to leave. I think I will remember my first days in Vietnam for the rest of my life. Welcomed by a volunteer who spoke French, I found myself, after one and a half hours in a bus, sitting on a motorcycle with all my luggage, heading towards an unknown destination in the middle of the countryside. My chauffeur left me in front of the door of what would be my house for one year, making a gruff gesture to tell me to go in.
Imagine the scene if you will: a French woman, lost in a Vietnamese agglomeration, arriving by motorcycle with two suitcases and a bag, hesitantly opening an old gate to find herself in front of two buildings separated by a deserted courtyard. No one at all. The anxiety. Then, all of a sudden, two little barefooted girls, of two or three years of age, rushed into the courtyard, looked at me for ten seconds, then ran to me to give me hugs. Such a welcome cannot be described in words!
The Vietnamese sign language
Thinking back makes me realize that from this very first contact, I realized I would need to communicate without words, with physical gestures. This is something that took a very important place for me during the whole mission: the Vietnamese language is not easy to master, be it in writing or speaking. Although it uses a Latin alphabet, it has many accents which make it musical, and possesses six tones. When my English or French was not understood and I did not have the adequate Vietnamese to make myself understood, I often had to resort to gestures and facial expressions. This habit was accentuated and helped by the presence, at the center where I lived, of eight deaf children and adolescents. They taught me the basics of the Vietnamese sign language, using drawings, mimes, and sometimes their knowledge of English. For several months, I participated with the nun responsible for their little group, helping with their evening activities: writing, mathematics, vocal articulation, lip reading, and drawing. I also worked with them very often in their craftsmanship workshop. It is thanks to this workshop and their apprenticeship in manual professions such as cooking, sewing, or haircutting that the community helps them to be autonomous and prepares them for the world of work.
My “almost twin” deaf sister
I became friends with the older people in this group, who were my age. Friendship, when we do not speak the same language, is quite particular. This is even more true with sign language, where one is forced to really look at the other, to allow one’s emotions to show on one’s face, and in one’s behavior. For this openness to the other I am especially grateful to the community, and to three people in particular, Marie Van, my “almost twin” deaf sister, Sister Myriam with whom I worked a lot and discussed my vocation, and Pauline, a French volunteer who helped me put into words what I was living.
To serve others is to serve the Christ
It was a great experience that I learned during my year in Vietnam: going on mission means one is able to say “now, I live for others”. I took time for myself also, of course, but I was there to serve. My mission taught me to really be a servant to others, not by obeying blindly and sadly like a slave but to serve joyfully. Like the Gospel says, “each time you do it to the smallest of my brothers, it is to me that you have done it” (Matthew 25, 40). Serving others is serving the Christ, choosing to go where one is sent.
Upon returning to France, I could not imagine leaving behind me what I had learned as just a parenthesis that one closes: it was impossible, in particular, to leave the sign language and the world of the deaf behind me, stuck between two pages of my travelogue. I signed up to an intensive training course in sign French sign language, which opened my eyes to an incredibly rich culture and reaffirmed my choice to become, God willing, French-sign language interpreter.
My review is a great thanks to the people I met during the course of this mission, a great hope in what will come next, and the decision to keep, as we say at the rue du Bac, “Joy… anyhow!”
Jeanne, MEP volunteer.