It's finally happening! After months of planning and anticipation, I'm finally doing it. My first time ever, teaching a self defense program. I have a dozen years of martial arts training and experience in various disciplines such as Judo, Muay Thai, Taekwondo, and Kendo, and this time I get to put this passion towards training others. Also my favourite job during high school was working for 2 years at Kumon, a learning center for kids teaching math and English. So I'm excited to take these two skill sets of martial arts and working with kids on a educational level and seeing how this volunteer experience go!
Also, I forgot to mention that I speak (though very poorly), Vietnamese. I don't count this as a skill set since my Vietnamese is at a basic level. I am a Canadian (born in Canada), but have a Vietnamese heritage and grew up speaking Vietnamese to my parents, and really only my parents. My fiancé (Huong) of 9.5+ years is of Vietnamese heritage as well and will be my biggest support, and her Viet is 10x better than mine. So I'm a little nervous but not too worried knowing I have her to rely on.
The participants I'm told are about 20 girls aged 5 to 16 years old, with most of them being survivors of rape and sexual abuse, human sex trafficking and some at high risk of being a victim. I'm not sure what to expect. This self defense training starts in August 2019.
Self Defence Lesson #1: Long range striking
My Personal Reflection: They're just kids
Upon arriving at the OBV shelter, I see around a couple dozen young girls running around and being very loud. I'm a little overwhelmed. I can see they're very excited for their first self defense lesson! They start speaking to me quickly (addressing me as teacher) and to my fiancé. There's many voices calling out and asking me questions all at once (I really am overwhelmed and can't count how many are talking to me). I respond to one of them that asked me something (whatever it was, I can't remember), and that's when I realized how bad my Vietnamese was. She didn't understand me, and I hear one of the other girls saying "The teacher doesn't speak Vietnamese, why are you asking questions?!". I'm able to respond to that comment in Vietnamese well enough. It's funny, my fiancé and I arrived to Saigon a couple of days prior, and met up with some of her family, and they all complimented me on my Vietnamese. I gotta say, I really do appreciate the honesty of kids, and realize how much family (or adults even) simply can't tell you a hard truth! Anyways, the lesson begins.
Not to focus this blog too much on the technical content of self defense (I could spend countless hours writing about it), this first lesson focuses on long range striking. This is effective (I'm explaining to the girls) if someone is attempting to attack you but are still at a considerable distance from you. It's a basic lesson of strikes including jab and cross punches, eye pokes, and kicks. As we're all warming up, one girl, the youngest one (and definitely the smallest one) grabs my hand pulls it towards her and tries to hug my arm. I realize she's trying to show affection and wants to receive affection from me. I pull her back towards her spot and we keep warming up.
The lesson continues and I realize that at times, it's very difficult to get them in order. Some are in the mood for playing (some girls are yelling at each other [in a teasing way]; wrestling; some sitting and conversing). The opposite occurs too at times, where I see more of the older girls have a keen focus on the lesson, and genuinely want to learn the technique for a proper strike. A lot of the activities puts a smile on their faces and creates laughter. They're simply just kids. They're finding joy and humour in whatever they do. The last part of the session is a game activity which is pretty much a modified version of dodgeball. Man! They were loud the entire time. Lesson #1 completed.
After the lesson, I get a tour of the shelter from one of the OBV employees there. I see the sleeping corridors (and think, these are pretty hard beds and wouldn't be soft enough for me to sleep well), and get shown the room where the girls can meet with a psychologist. My fiancé and I see one girl step out of that area, and I realize she must've had a session with the psychologist recently. She looks like she's a little bothered and melancholy at the same time.
My fiancé and I are travelling back to the main part of the city where we're staying (it's about an hour's drive), and I reflect with her on what we just experienced. I reflect on the youngest girl attempting to hug my arm. I reflect upon the conditions of the home, how it's mainly a concrete building, and the beds with its thin mattresses [and mosquito nets]. I reflect on how hot and uncomfortable it was for me being in the +30 degrees Celsius climate, and how I've been bitten by mosquitoes more than a handful of times. Lastly, I reflect on how there were exactly 18 girls at the OBV home, but one [girl] didn't participate and looked bothered [by something].
Self Defence Lesson 2: Short range striking
My Personal Reflection: Though the girls have one common relation with each other (being survivors), they are each individuals with very different personalities.
Day 2! The lesson is striking in close quarters/when someone is standing real close to you. This is important because when someone's in your personal space and you try to strike, your usual punches and kicks won't be as effective. The lesson focuses on upper cuts, hooks, elbow strikes, and knees.
Please note, with the lesson being short range striking, Muay Thai is the best martial arts for short range hits. I am wearing a shirt displaying the Muay Thai martial arts, and the shirt happens to be a sleeveless muscle shirt. This detail is important for the next paragraph.
The class is beginning to start up. Huong and I are conversing with some of the girls. One girl, the older (possibly oldest) girl at 16 y/o goes up to me and starts to pat my arm and inspects my "muscles". I know what you're thinking, and trust me, I had the same thought too. This was concerning since these girls are survivors of sexual abuse, and I need to keep any relationship (especially as an older male figure) professional and respectable. But I can say, this 2 seconds of worry quickly turned to relief and as I kept talking to this 16 y/o girl. Turns out, she wanted to develop these muscles for herself too. She asked about what my exercises were so that she could improve her strength. Just to quickly talk about this girl, she is the most motivated person in my self defense class. She practised all the exercises with attention, doesn't fool around, and genuinely wants to know to learn and be a stronger person. There's much more I could talk about her (she's one of my favourites at the shelter), but I'll end off saying she's definitely Tomboyish and her favourite school subject is gym/sports. I think that's enough said.
Other notes I can share about other girls. There were two girls who were fighting for who was going to open the gate for us when we entered the shelter. Both were such sweet girls and wanted to have a good impression on us. The same happened when we left as well, and they raced each other to unlock the gate and let us out. There were some of the younger girls, whose favourite activity in my lesson was the game at the end (I learned from the dodge ball game at the end of the first lesson being a big hit). There were two separate girls that came to me at the beginning of the lesson and asked "Teacher, are we playing a game today?" and "What game are we playing?".
Speaking of the game now, the game I had prepared was a Capture the Flag equivalent which split the girls into two teams, and it involved Huong to be on one team (since there was an odd number of girls). Huong's team won. It was fair and square. It wasn't a size advantage that Huong gave them (there's about 3 girls bigger and taller than Huong), so I'll give her this one.
I finished off this day getting a better understanding of the girls; individual personalities, as well as knowing the most look forwarded to activity in my lesson for the young girls is the game. I'm now motivated to make my lessons more fun, but still memorable so that the girls learn these skills in case they ever need it in the future.
Self Defence Lesson 3: Standing grappling
My Personal Reflection: My small self sacrifice is worth it for a group's lifelong gain
Day #3 is about to begin and guess what, there's already one girl (14 y/o) behind the gate ready to open the door for Huong and I. Man, do we feel special lol.
This lesson #3 deals with the scenario of someone grabbing you (where both individuals are still standing). Let's say they grabbed your hand/wrist/arm, or they wrapped their arm around you and pinned you into them, this lesson was to show a couple of ways to escape. This was one of the most effective classes. Both Huong and I test the girls, as we do an exercise where we hold their wrist, and have them escape our grasp. I can say, this was my proudest lesson yet. This one was very effective, and I'm glad cause I feel like the girls learnt something they can apply if they ever need to. I see their confidence growing after this lesson.
With a great lesson, I was glad and felt like we deserved the game we're about to play. Since we did also do foot trips (part of the escape situations when someone is holding onto you), I incorporated this aspect of foot work into the game by having a "Popping a Balloon Game" where the girls are stomping on balloons that are tied to each other's ankle, with the remaining girl with a unpopped balloon being the winner. Remember that 16 y/o girl that's very athletic and wants to gain more muscles? I'm a little biased, but I proud she won this balloon popping game (I was internally cheering for her to win). Just to be clear, I did not give any my favourites an advantage, but am simply proud.
The day ends off great, and this is best feeling I've had so far volunteering with OBV. I reflect on why I signed up to be a volunteer with OBV. I reflect back and appreciate that I can add value. At the end of the first two lessons, I remember thinking how I disliked the hot and humid weather in Saigon, and hated getting a handful of mosquito bites each time I'm at the shelter. By evaluating this great feeling I had of the girls gaining confidence in protecting themselves, I concluded that the sacrifices I was making (dealing with hot weather & mosquito bites) is minute in comparison to what these girls are benefiting.
Self Defense Lesson 4: Ground Grappling
My Personal Reflection: Adjusting My Lessons to these Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Day #4, and guess who's the first one at the gate ready to open the door for Huong and I? Yep, it's the 14 y/o sweetheart. She is definitely becoming one of my favourites.
Lesson #4 is the ground grappling. I learnt this ground grappling in Judo. This is when you and your attacker are both on the ground, and the lesson focuses on escapes for this scenario. The position I show the girls these escapes is when you're laying on your back.
There's really only one thing I want to share from what I experienced on day #4. Demonstrating these escapes was done just fine. The girls nodded and showed they understood. When they replicated these escapes themselves, with the attacker being in-between their legs (the girls' pretend attackers were other girls, of course), there were uncomfortable body language and expressions in doing these exercises. I don't think any girl went through with this exercise fully. Laying on your back with someone between your legs is not a favourable position to be in when you're trying to defend yourself, and even it probably is one of the most realistic positions + most valuable to learn, I realize that they weren't going to go through with it, and that I had to adjust my lesson. It's not that I didn't think about these girls being survivors of sexual abuse and the appropriateness of these positions, it's just that I did not realize the extent it would affect them and inhibit them from fully practising these moves.
Adapting on the fly, I changed the defence position so that the girls are lying on their side, and then executing the escape that I just taught them. This may sound like a small detail, but I think it's an important note for anyone wants to volunteer with these girls. End of day #4.
Self Defence Lesson 5: Overall review + what the girls want to learn
My Personal Reflection: You don't need much to still give
Last lesson before the girls go back to school. We head towards the entrance of the OBV home and you guessed it, it was the same sweetheart that opened up the gate for us to go in.
Today was just a review lesson of what we learnt in the previous 4 classes, and I did leave time open for any questions/scenarios that the girls had in mind. Some of the questions they had that I can share are:
- What happens when someone sneaks from behind you and grabs/snatches you?
- What happens when someone covers your mouth so you can't scream?
- What happens when they're on top of you this way and pin you down?
These questions are pretty thought out. They're not questions as to how to win a fight against someone. They're legitimate questions on how to get out of a bad situation. I really can't help but think: the questions the girls are asking about on certain scenarios, did these happen to them?
There was also another point in today's lesson where we had a sit down discussion with the girls, and one asked if they try to steal your purse, what do you do? The answer I gave was that if someone is trying to rob you and if they have a weapon, don't try to be a hero and fight them. Your material stuff isn't worth your valuable life. This one girl had trouble accepting this answer and said "What? You're just going to let them take your stuff?". I stood firm on my answer. But I understood, when you don't have much stuff you tend to care more about what little you have. There is definitely a difference in mentality from how these girls grow up versus how I grew up in Canada.
Now we're at the end of the lesson and it's game time! We do a equivalent of flag football (with every person for themselves). This time, the winner was the 14 y/o that opens up the gate for Huong and I. Once again, I'm proud to say one of my favourites won. Is it a bad thing that I'm this proud of my favourite girls winning?
A couple of things happen now that were pretty cool and worth mentioning. Since the girls and the OBV workers know we're finished training self defence for the summer, we received a couple of gifts! One, there is a mini celebration and Che (Vietnamese dessert) is brought out and for everyone to enjoy! Two, the oldest girl (16 y/o) does a speech thanking Huong and I. It was a heartfelt and sincere speech. I had a speech in response showing my gratitude. I can't help but feel a little regret since my Vietnamese isn't the best. I really wished my Viet was better at that time so that I could better convey the appreciation and emotions I felt being a part the girl's lives for that summer. Third, a heartfelt moment I felt was when some of the girls gave us little gifts. Remember, these girls don't have much. The shelter is mainly a concrete structure. Don't get me wrong, OBV does a great job giving these girls a home and a family. But I can say that the girls don't have much physical possessions. What some of the young girls gave us were drawings they drew on sheets of paper. Another one gave Huong a hair clip that Huong didn't want to accept at first, but the young girl really wanted her to accept it. It was a sad and happy moment at the same time.
I promised myself that we would be back to continue more self defence training for the girls. If you know me well, I keep my promises.
Not a self defence lesson, but an in-between. Huong and I had the honour of attending OBV's 20th Anniversary Celebration.
What a great experience. I finally got to meet Angela Nguyen (OBV Canada President) in person for the first time. I got to meet the legendary Priest, Father Martino, since we've all heard about his legacy (seriously, this is an understatement; Father Martino is nothing short of a legend). And most importantly, I got to see the girls again. They were so excited to see us! It was a great feeling to be welcomed with hugs by girls that are so precious. A lot of them had their first question as "Are you going to teach self defence again soon?", to which I was more than happy to answer "Yep, we're going to start the lessons again this Saturday". It was worth more than anything to see their smiles at that answer.
The anniversary event was such a great success. This well thought out and well planned event had great performances by singers, delicious food, and videos explaining OBV and the process and struggles on the battle against human sex trafficking and sexual abuse. It was great to see the Cambodia OBV girls join their sisters in Vietnam and celebrate this anniversary event. The Cambodian girls sang an English song, the Vietnamese girls had a dance and lip sync performance. The Vietnamese girls also had other breakout performances which were cute enough that I regret not recording it.
There were some touching moments at the anniversary event. All in all, I simply want to say I appreciate the hard work and dedication of the OBV staff and acknowledge how many lives they have touched. Sister Ngoc (the Nun) dedicates here every day to helping these girls. Chi Thao is a rescuer, going out to the field and educating people about OBV. And of course, Father Martino and Angela Nguyen. Father Martino is retiring from the organization that he created, but we all know that he has done several lifetimes worth of work through the 20 years of OBV's history. For Angela, she has shown her commitment and passion for the last 7 years with OBV. She puts OBV and the girls as her #1 priority in life, and I'm glad and support her as the new, young face of leadership at OBV.
Self Defence Lesson 6: Grappling - Dealing with a standing attacker while you're on the ground
My Personal Reflection: You learn a lot more in different settings
It's my first lesson again since mid August! Huong and I are back three months later (it is now December) and man, am I excited! Actually, my excitement isn't visibly much compared to the girls. As we approach the entrance gate of the shelter, there's about 5 girls there waiting for us and they are loud! They grabbed our hands just to drag us into the shelter quicker than the speed we were walking.
What's different this time is that I brought along blank name tags for the girls to write their names and stick it on their shirt. I made it an effort this time to memorize all their names, since it was a big regret of mine not remembering their names earlier in August.
Prior to this training, I've had the itch to do some martial arts. I've been visualizing/day dreaming other techniques that I wanted to teach the girls since my last training in August. This time, the scenario is you're on the ground (sitting or laying on the ground), and the attacker is standing over you, what do you do? I taught 3 different escapes for this scenario (these 3 escapes I've pretty much used on everyone that's close enough to me and have wrestled with me before).
The lessons continues and eventually ends with a game, like usual. It feels like I never left and feels like the last lesson happened last week with the girls (when really it's been over 3 months). It's nice to get back into the swing of things. What's different this time is that we stay back after the lesson to spend time with the girls, and eventually join them for lunch. We talk more with some of the girls (learn more about them, what their favourite school subjects are), and go on this skateboard looking thing that only has two wheels. It's really hard to ride this "skateboard", but 3 of the girls show off their skills (more along the lines of just boasting).
Now it's lunch with Huong and I are joining the girls, OBV workers, and Sister Ngoc for lunch. We sit at a table where it's with Sister Ngoc, and with 4 of the younger girls. It's adorable to see an older girl (10 y/o) help feed the youngest one (5 y/o). Then, you feel sad that this youngest girl is so young she even has trouble feeding herself. You can't believe how a girl this young could experience what she did. We're just talking casually with Sister Ngoc, and Huong makes a comment as to how small two of the 10 y/o girls at our table are. Sister Ngoc tells us that one of the girls has experienced surgery due to trauma to her internal body, and that was a factor in inhibiting her growth. She also tells us that another girl (a 6 y/o at our table) grew up being surrounded with mental illness, and how 3 out of her 6 siblings have a mental illness, just like their mother.
Our time at the OBV shelter is done for the day, and we're on the bus ride back to our hotel. I reflect on much more this time, because of what I've learnt from the Nun. Over a setting like lunch, you do get a chance to talk and simply learn more.
Self Defense Lesson 7: Strengthening and honing your striking abilities
My Personal Reflection: There are after effects
Next lesson, here we are! The girls are very stubborn today. They are growing louder and not as attentive. It takes a lot more effort on Huong and I's part to get them in order. I wonder if it has to do with the oldest girl (the one that all of the girls respect a lot) not being present during today's lesson?
The class is about improving your striking abilities, and simply making these shots more powerful. This lesson isn't about any new technique, but of honing your ability and perfecting it. This is the first time I introduced some pad work to my classes, and the girls loved it! They have too much energy to start, and this is a great way for them to take it out. Actually, it looks like some of them have built up anger and wanted to strike hard to vent out. Wow! I wish I did pad work earlier!
There was one instance from this lesson that I realized something important that I want to share on this blog. One of the girls (10 y/o) asked me during today's lesson if she could go to the bathroom. Please note, the self defense lessons are around 1.5 hours long, so they're not too long where you couldn't hold in your pee. But of course, my answer is always "Yes, you may go to the bathroom". Upon reflecting this, I realize the same girl asked me last week to go to the bathroom during that lesson. And realize again that in August (several months ago now) that it was the same 10 y/o girl who asked to go to the washroom during my lesson at least once out of the 5 sessions (I couldn't remember if it was more than once since too much time has passed, but I can say with 100% certainty it was the same girl). I share this reflection with Huong, and she shares that she remembers during our training in August that she was also asked by this same 10 y/o girl to go to the bathroom. The big conclusion, this is the same girl that the nun told us has experienced internal damages to her body due to what she experienced. I can't help but feel angry at this realization. Though this young girl has experienced what no girl should experience, she is still dealing with the physical after effects of it.
Self Defence Lesson 8: Weapons Defence
My Personal Reflection: The girls are Resourceful; OBV Provides Opportunities; And for Something to be Successful, It Needs to be Carried on Through
This is it! The last lesson. I probably won't be seeing the girls again for over a year after this lesson is done. I'm excited to go back to Canada (I even miss the cold), but I'm sad at the same time that my life is going to be far and away from these girls. I wish they were in Canada, so I could continue this training with them every Saturday morning.
The lesson is simple today. We do some weapons defence practise (using a red marker as a short knife, and the girls really are trying not to get red marks on their skin). And do more pad work to increase their strength and confidence.
Today is the longest we have ever spent with the girls continuously (it is the last day after all), and the majority of it is NOT doing self defence, so I'll talk more about this quality time spent.
After getting changed out of my exercise clothes, Huong and I separated and are mingling with the different groups of girls. For me, some of the young girls teach me their modified version of Mancala (I didn't know what it was called then and had to Google it after leaving the shelter). I played 3 games with 2 different girls, and won one of those games at least. Another note, these girls are very crafty. When we're playing Mancala, they're using broken a clay brick as chalk to draw lines onto the pavement, and then using rocks on the ground as counters. This is pretty cool. Also, I play a game of pick up the rocks while throwing another set in the air (objective is to collect all the rocks while not dropping any).
It's lunch time! We have a great meal with the girls. We are painfully learning the customs of a traditional, family style Vietnamese meal. It is embarrassing forgetting that I should've invited the girls to dine first (due to Vietnamese customs), having them wait for me before starting dessert, etc. Darn, I really should've learnt this beforehand. It's embarrassing and will always be a cringy moment whenever I reflect back at this.
Once again, the oldest girl (16 y/o) does another thankful speech to Huong and I. She really is just a great person. I tell them I missed them all after our time spent in August, and I'm missing them already, since I know I won't see them for a long time after today. I ask for a picture with the girls (see picture below). To really emphasize how much I miss these girls and how much they mean to me, let me give you an example. I've had my laptop for almost 8 years. The desktop background on my laptop for the entire 8 years was the same picture that I never bothered to changed. After coming back to Canada, I finally changed my background picture with this picture of us with the girls.
After this lunch and picture taking, Huong and I are back hanging out and playing with the girls. At one moment, I'm watching Huong play an activity with the girls (a clapping game called Stella Ella Ola). I'm sitting on a plastic stool and the youngest girl (the same 5 y/o girl that attempted to hug my arm during lesson #1) goes up to me and leans against me. She grabs both of my arms and puts them around herself. I'm honestly a little frozen at this point. This isn't right because it surpasses the professional boundaries that they and we have been taught. She even tries to hop on top of my lap as well while my arms are around her, but luckily I'm too high up for her to do so. I hate how she's conditioned to want to have affection from an adult male. This is all because of what's happened to her in the past and what these men have taught her to do. Fortunately one of the other girls sees this and yells out to the 5 y/o and says "You shouldn't do this girl!". I'm thankful the 5 y/o listens to her sister and does leave me. I make sure I stand up the remainder of the time so that she can't attempt this again.
I spend time with some of the other girls not playing the clapping game. There's a couple of girls at their work desks. They show me their drawings and sketches of flowers and of people. There's even a girl that draws on a poster sized chart an awesome flower. I realize that this is a poster chart! This may not sound like a big deal, but lacking resources is common in many parts of Vietnam. I'm able to distinguish this poster chart! OBV is great to have supplied a resource like this for girls to practice their talents, or simply just to express and be themselves. OBV provides the girls not only safety, but resources!
I'm watching another girl practice her writing, and she's writing out their daily schedule. Another girl shows me the writing she's done. It's very neatly written in hand writing. Then I realized it's the names of the band members of the Korean K-Pop group, BTS. Darn it! These girls were so cool up until this point! I'm just kidding! With how much I've focused on discipline and serious situations of self defense, I forgot that these girls are still teen and pre-teens, and yes, they have crushes on boy bands.
My last reflection as I'm leaving the shelter is I simply wish these girls have the best life they can possibly have. They are so precious and I hope they can have the world in their hands someday. I thinking about this Self Defense class, and I wish I could continue teaching them. I know this is my last lesson, so I make a mental note on recommending to OBV to have another trainer that's on teaching them more martial arts. Though I wish it was me training them, I rather have someone else training them rather than have no more training at all. I want to know that their confidence continues to grow.
To end off this blog (my first ever blog by the way), I would like to simply say this. Regardless of whether I made an impression on these girls or not, I can state for a fact that these girls have made a lifelong impression on mine.