The day I almost became a father in Saigon!
Just one word: AWKWARD. That’s how I felt when the woman looked into my eyes and asked if I wanted to take her youngest son. It was certainly not the kind of thing I was expecting when I set out on a random walk across the river from my apartment last Sunday morning.
Here’s the lad in question:
Let’s go back to the beginning…
Feeling that I didn’t want to waste the opportunities to discover new things for the remainder of my time here in Vietnam, I decided recently to get out a lot more to explore Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding areas. So on Sunday morning, I picked up my camera and set out, not really having a clear idea of where I was headed.
I walked along the black river that runs behind my apartment. I don’t know what’s in that water, but it sure doesn’t smell like anything good!
Anyway, I came to a bridge and decided to cross it. Halfway across, I came across a staircase that led down to a small peninsula, the tip of which supported the central part of the bridge. I went down to explore and see if I could get close to the clutter of makeshift shacks that lined the river.
Right next to the bridge was small community. As I entered, I was greeted by warm smiles and countless requests for me to take friends’ and family members’ photos. One character – an older man who was playing chess with his brother – asked me to take his photo. He told me to wait and carefully tucked in his shirt and centred his belt buckle before “posing” for his shot. Well, I’m not sure what his inspiration was, but it was certainly an unlike any position I’ve seen people assume for a snapshot!
He was quite happy with the way it looked in the LCD display, so I guess that’s what really matters. It’s great when you meet real characters like this guy – it’s part of what I really love about photography, it gives an excuse to just wander into random places and connect with people you’d never meet otherwise.
At first, the homes I walked past seemed quite nice – certainly not the residences of affluent families, but full of rustic charm.
But continuing on deeper into the village, I noticed that many people were living in the remains of partially-demolished houses. Many had no roof, with plastic sheets giving some shelter from the daily monsoon rains, and other homes didn’t even have walls. They were just plastic sheets held up by posts above tile floors that were all that remained of long-gone homes. Once again my internal magnet had drawn me to a community of squatters.
As I was walking through, one family called me into their “home” and invited me to sit with them for an early lunch.
In the photo above, they are sitting in their living room, which also would double as a bedroom by night. Their residence consisted of one wall (a collection of corrugated iron sheets that made up part of their neighbours’ home) and a roof of plastic bags supported by wooden posts. They smiled with a genuineness that keeps me coming back to communities like these. I was pleased that I could communicate in a very basic way with them in Vietnamese. I was able to answer some questions about myself such as where I’m from and what I do, but my language skills aren’t up to asking much about their lives yet. I did learn that the water they live next to used to be much higher (about five years ago), but now has been reduced to a creek in the centre of a mud flat that reeks of all kinds of nasty industrial and organic byproducts. In all there were six family members present – the two ladies above plus another in her fifties, a man of a similar age, as well as a younger lady with her toddler daughter.
The third woman was preparing food in their kitchen, which consisted of a few tiles and a single tap. The water ran out onto the floor and down into the mud flat that lay directly below the wooden floor of the shack.
The child was resting in their sole hammock.
I was pleased to see that she looked quite healthy and well-clothed. I think the parents here probably sacrifice a lot to give their children the best opportunities in life. I think that’s the key motivation of the woman that tried to convince me to take her son, but we’ll get to that soon…
Exploring more of the community, I walked past people working in their homes…
… narrowly escaped being attacked by aggressive dogs (their owner came to the rescue)…
… and finally came to the edge of the river.
There was a man fishing beside the pungent flow.
He was using young live crickets as bait and had caught a few small catfish.
It seems fish from the river provide some more affordable food for the village residents.
I bid the man farewell and continued on. Turning a corner, I saw an interesting spot and was shooting when I was approached by a couple of curious kids. A young boy (the one in the first picture) and his older sister. They were a happy pair, and after getting over their fascination with my western nose – which the girl kept telling me was so high (I’ve learnt not to be touchy about it when I’m in Asia) – they ran to tell their mother there was a foreigner taking photos outside.
The mother came out and asked if I could take another picture of her youngest son for her. I obliged, and she then led me to their home where another of her children was doing homework. She asked me to take one of him too.
She then invited me into their home to show me the view of the river they had through their back door.
They invited me to sit down and tried to have a conversation with me. The parts I understood were that the people in the village were very poor. She said that she had 7 children, and was having trouble affording an education for all of them. That was when things got uncomfortable…
Her: Do you have a family?
Me: Yes. I’m married, but I don’t have children.
Her: Do you want my son? I’ll give him to you.
Hmmm… I felt extremely uncomfortable at this stage. The fact is, I COULD afford to raise her child, and that WOULD give him the chance to live a much better life. I also feel bad about their situation, it’s not ideal for anybody to live in poverty, and we’re not exactly struggling financially here. But I’m not ready to take on a responsibility like that, especially when there are other children even more in need. And after all, it was her decision to continue having children knowing full well her own financial situation (my wife and I don’t even dare have a child yet, as we want to be absolutely sure we can give them a stable upbringing free from the feeling that not having enough brings a young child – we’ve both been there). I was torn between feeling compassionate, admiring her drive to give her children better opportunities, and feeling guilty for being so much better off than them but not doing anything to help. I don’t know their situation – how they came to be in the position they’re in, or what kinds of struggles they face, but I’d rather find other ways to give them opportunities. Maybe free English tuition for children in the community or something along those lines. It’s hard when there are just so many people living in poverty. It really makes one feel helpless.
I said no thank you, and tried to keep the tone light. I took a picture of the mother and child together, and I could see she really cared for him, but wondered how it felt for the child to hear his mother speak in such a way.
As I sat on the floor there, I wondered about why people living in poverty continue to have children. It seems the more affluent people become and the more capable of raising children and giving them the best chance in life, the less likely they are to have children. Is it some evolutionary instinct – the less chance of offspring surviving, the greater the drive to increase the probability of having some make it through? Is it the fact that the richer we are, the more we can fill our lives with other things that fill our drive for satisfaction – overseas holidays, new cars, entertainment in general? Maybe it’s also about education? I think it’s probably a combination of a wide range of factors, but it doesn’t make it any less tragic.
After a little while, I stood up to go. As I was leaving I met the grandmother of the children, who lived in a shack next to theirs.
I saw that they were also living partly on catfish from the river. I wondered what implications this would have for their health.
I left them on good terms, and I do hope to return when my wife’s schedule isn’t so hectic to find out their story in detail (I really need a translator), along with the stories of some other people from the community. Having tasted the bitterness of financial hardship growing up, I really empathise with these folk, but I’m sure when they see me walking in with my foreign clothes, smartphone and expensive camera, they see me as more of an outsider than I feel. All I can do is be friendly and hope my expressions and limited Vietnamese are enough to get my respect for them across. So far, I’ve found people can sense it. At least that’s one thing I can be happy about.
I left the family and their cat, and continued on my way.
Leaving the community, I walked past so many friendly faces, and wondered about what part of our soul becomes numb as we climb the socioeconomic ladder.
I walked past the creek that had previously been a river that was lined with shacks just like the one I’d been in that morning and started to make my way home.
As I was crossing the bridge back, I could see the storm clouds rolling in from the west. I knew I had to get a move on.
I picked up my pace as I walked along the black river (I don’t actually know the name of the river, but it really is black – I’d never be found swimming in it or eating those catfish).
I got to my favourite chicken congee restaurant just after the downpour began.
As I sheltered in the restaurant with my congee, I tried to process all that had happened that day. I wish I could say I’d come to a conclusion about it all, but to be honest, I’m still trying to process it now. When it comes to poverty, it’s easy to send off a cheque once a month to sponsor a child somewhere in the world, and feel you’re doing your bit, but when it’s right at your doorstep and you realise just how rampant it is, it’s hard not to feel helpless, especially when you’re presented with a way to be of help, but it seems the problem is so large it’s hard to know where to begin.
Life would be easier if we could all turn a blind eye and focus on our own issues, but that’s easier said than done, and the idealist in me hopes that we never become so jaded that we choose that route. In the meantime, I’m still trying to figure out how to shake this feeling that’s stayed with me since that day that I need to be doing SOMETHING!