Giving and Receiving

A little more than a year ago a friend wrote to tell me that he thought I had found the secret to retirement – a really great new job. I think he’s right, although there are moments when stress, conflict, or just plain fatigue makes me want to pack it all in and veg on some tropical beach with a no-brain thriller.

We’ve been back in Vietnam for two weeks now, and there has been plenty of stress, jet-lag, conflict and fatigue. We’ve been busy reestablishing relationships, going to meetings, attending to a 4 day staff retreat in central Vietnam, and spending a couple of days with the President of the foundation reviewing local operations and looking at budgets. These two weeks have been unusually busy but there is an exciting buzz to being back and some remarkably good things to look back on.

We have a small office in Saigon. When I arrived a year ago there were three of us, and our mission was to explore the fundraising potential here in the business center of Vietnam. We’re still around, but we have added four more staff in the last six months. They are working on clean water projects for villages in the Mekong delta funded by a large Australian government grant. Two of the four on the water team were in place before I went to the US in June – the project leader, a Vietnamese woman, named Binh, with lots of experience in this area and Gary, an Australian engineer on loan for a year from Engineers Without Borders. While I was away Binh hired two more engineers, both young and both with Master’s degrees from universities in Thailand. An is a handsome, confident, kid with excellent English and interpersonal skills and Ha Chau is a shyly beautiful equally talented young woman.

Since our work doesn’t really intersect and because we work in a tall narrow Vietnamese house with four levels, we don’t have a lot of interaction in the office. The trip to Quy Nhon and the three days at the staff retreat gave me a chance to get to know them.

I am so impressed with the quiet grace and generosity of the Vietnamese people. There is a tradition here that mandates that a new friend or guest be given special treatment at mealtime. I’ve experienced this twice. The first time I didn’t really understand it. This time it was explained to me.

Almost all Vietnamese meals are communal. The food comes in bowls or platters and everyone shares. As we sat down for our first meal together, An and Ha Chau sat beside me and as the food and beer arrived they served me first. I accepted this as a normal courtesy and didn’t pay much attention until I noticed that each time I took a sip of beer or bite of something from my bowl of rice the glass or the bowl were instantly replenished. And each time a new dish arrived and a new dipping sauce appeared they served me and then explained what it was and how to eat it. Eventually, I understood that as long as I kept eating or drinking my glass and bowl would be filled. This is a lovely tradition and it continued throughout the three days. Each time we ate together and something new appeared I was served first and given a little tutorial about it. They paid me great respect and in turn it gave me a warm appreciation for them and their tradition.

I’m not a big fan of team building retreats, but I learned a lot at this one. Not only did I get to know these two young colleagues who work in my office, but I also learned that the Vietnamese are different from Americans in other ways. They love group activities and hi-jinks. Like children they enthusiastically embrace the games and exercises. Maybe I thought I was too cool for these things, but they wouldn’t let me miss out. On the second night of the retreat there was a EMW Idol or EMW’s Got Talent kind of show with a series of funny skits and some very talented singing and dancing by staff members. My office brought costumes and performed a looney skit that had me dressed up as a traditional Mandarin. A few beers helped me get over being cool, and once our skit was over I gave in to the simple pleasure of watching their pleasure.

This experience demonstrates once again that even with significant differences, there are also remarkable similarities. We are learning from each other and working together to help the poor and disadvantaged people of Vietnam. This job is a great gift for me.

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