My Background and Beginnings, Connection towards One Body Village
I was born in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, and at the age of two was almost kidnapped by a stranger in front of the bakery on the street of my family’s home. Luckily my mom grabbed me back from the stranger in time, but my life could have been extremely different from what it is now. With that background and the privilege of having immigrated to Canada at the age of three, I always knew that I wanted to give back to the developing country that I was born in. I wasn’t sure which cause yet, and like most people, was caught up in work and life commitments.
As a feminist who has experienced some incidents of sexism or racism, female empowerment and equity is something I am extremely passionate towards. I have been involved with several female serving organizations such as Women’s Crisis Centre, Women’s Immigrant Centres, and Young Women in Business. Regarding the incidents that I have experienced where people have called me racial slurs based on my ethnicity or gender, when looking at a larger global scale, in perspective it is minor compared to what vulnerable young girls in developing countries are experiencing.
When I heard Angela, President of One Body Village (OBV) Canada, speech about One Body Village (OBV) at an event in Calgary, there was an instant connection. I knew that I had to get involved somehow. OBV helps survivors of sexual abuse and trafficking in SE Asia, from rescuing to rehabilitating young girls to young women. Hearing the horror stories of what happened to these girls, there was a deep personal connection because I recognized that the things that happen to those girls could have also happened to me if I was successfully kidnapped.
Volunteering and Visiting my Birth Country with my Partner
Initially, when I reached out to Angela, OBV was interested in me facilitating some vocational workshops with the young professional women, with my background in career coaching and facilitation. Unfortunately, logistically it couldn’t happen with the young women’s schedules. Since I was planning to travel with my partner Ken and wanted him to be involved somehow anyways, I also shared his resume with the President, Angela. She saw his background in martial arts and saw how that could be of service.
Before getting to volunteer, there was an interview screening process to understand our intentions and background. Due to the sensitive nature of the shelter, the exact location was not shared until we were in Vietnam, and there were thorough policies of professional boundaries, not taking photos without permission, if sharing photos to hide the girls’ faces, etc. I was highly satisfied with these precautions because it meant that they take the privacy and protection of these girls seriously.
Making the trip to teach self-defense lessons for the girls at the shelter in Vietnam was a momentous event for my partner Ken and I. It was the first time we travelled to Vietnam together, and also the first time in 10 years that I had been back, and it was over 20 years for my partner.
Seeing my partner Ken conduct self-defense orientated lessons for the young girls rather than martial arts was a perspective widening experience. Instead of sparring or fighting technique, which is something he’s familiar with from Taekwondo, Karate, Muay Thai, Judo, Kendo, etc, he needed to adjust it to girls ages 6-16 who might be defending themselves against people2-3 times their size. For me, as someone who’s taken a self-defense course as part of gym in high school, and took some Krav Maga classes in university, it’s all about doing whatever gritty thing you need to do for survival. We were able to blend our backgrounds where he led the classes while I roughly translated when necessary and served as the demonstration model.
Ken has always been supportive and understanding of my volunteering for female-serving organizations, and it was great this time to have him also by my side. He was able to understand at a deeper level the amount of risk that girls have to live through (the girls have all been sexually assaulted or are products of a sexual assault) I felt pride that the girls could form a healthy relationship with a positive male model.
There’s something extremely powerful and relationship cementing when you get to serve a cause you love with those that you love, especially in the country that you both share cultural roots. I’m so grateful that I got to do that with my partner Ken, where we were able to bond over making a positive impact for these girls.
OBV Sisterhood and Family
In Vietnamese culture, family is of utmost importance. A translation of the word “you” doesn’t exist in the language, because the way you address others is based on your hierarchy, seniority, etc. For females in close age, we call each other “chi” “em” which are respectful ways to address each other. I learned from Angela that at other orphanages in Vietnam, they call each other “may” “tao” which was upsetting for me because it is much less respectful.
I didn’t grow up with a sister, so I didn’t have a “chi” or “em gai”, and it took me a while to form strong healthy friendships with other females that were toxically competitive. Seeing the girls at the OBV shelter have sisterly affection towards each other (braiding each other’s hair before a lesson, an older girl helping encourage a younger one to eat at lunch, cheering for eachother during games etc) was heartwarming. There’s also the normal family dynamic of the girls occasionally bickering or catfighting and getting their energy out during the lessons which were amusing to watch. I also noticed the girls also call the nun, sister Ngoc who runs the shelter a motherly title of “Me”. These girls may be away from their biological families for their safety because of their past dangerous conditions, but they can form another family with OBV.
OBV Religious Affiliation
I have a complicated relationship with religious institutions, being raised as a “hardcore” Roman Catholic where I saw some hypocrisy in the church, I admit that I am jaded and I wasn’t sure about how I felt regarding OBV roots and operations. OBV was originally founded by a priest, and currently being overseen by a nun even though they are primarily secular in how they operate. I can say that I saw from my own eyes that OBV is refreshingly progressive.
The priest, Father Martino, is a nontypical, vigilante priest who has done rescue missions for girls who have been sexually trafficked, and he has had multiple bones in his body broken and *trigger warning* all orifices of his body have bled from being beaten up when caught. I have heard about him from Angela, and felt blessed to meet the legend himself at the 20th OBV anniversary where it was clear from his playful, exuberant interactions with the young girls to everyone else that he had the purest of motivations. The nun, Sister Ngoc, is more reserved, but understanding and inclusive. She is able to maintain a calm, patient demeanor when living with these girls and learning of their horrific pasts.
We noticed during classes that one girl who was a bit of an athletic tomboy and androgynous looking with her clothing and hairstyle. When I mentioned this observation to Angela about her, Angela revealed that that girl is open about her orientation with the shelter, and they are accepting of how she has a girlfriend! Especially for a typically traditional, conservative place like Vietnam, hearing this made my heart ring with joy. OBV truly is inclusive and accepting of all the girls.
Quick Summary of Lessons Learned
My personal story of being nearly kidnapped over two decades ago is a dark piece of my past that I am starting to shed light on because so many vulnerable children today are still currently being exploited in developing countries.
I am so grateful that I was able to volunteer alongside my partner, further growing our relationship towards a positive impact. We’ve had the privilege of travel, and this was our first time volunteering together, and travelling with purpose, both of which we want to continue.
Despite my skepticism of religious institutions, there are many religion-affiliated figures like Father Martino and Sister Ngoc doing incredible work serving vulnerable people through One Body Village.
The girls at OBV are incredibly strong, resilient survivors of sexual abuse, and I’m so honoured to have made a small contribution in their journey. They might not know it, but I know that they have greatly helped me in mine.