Saturday, March 10, 2012


"Whether one prefers career people to volunteers depends on whether you equate careerism with professionalism, that unquestioned term of praise, or with an unwillingness to 'rock the boat' even when people's well-being is at stake.  The term Benefactor is harder to define.  It is a word that the Vietnamese knew and used, but one from which I shrank, knowing that a Benefactor looks down from above to offer a helping hand.  Passionate volunteer is the closest I can come to coining a phrase which describes the people with whom I worked as colleagues. . . . The stated goals of volunteers and career people are the same:  the good of the refugees.  However, career people can never really be comfortable with volunteers. . . . Over here, the talk is about the needs of the refugees.  Over there, the talk is of not annoying the local authorities. . . . When the career people scold the volunteers or undercut us, the 'host nationals' read the message loud and clear and exploit the situation to their own advantage.  Now I can see how this works.  Then, I was simply a naive passionate volunteer.
     Two other 'Western' volunteers who were my colleagues during most of 1982 and 1983 were Ann and Adrian.  Ann Cusack, an Australian. . . . had blue eyes as bright as headlights, which, as time went on, became sadder. . . . Her command of Vietnamese was her entree to their lives. . . .She suffered each time someone was rejected for resettlement. . . . She taught morning, noon and night and lost her voice for awhile from the dust blowing into her classroom. . . .Although her big family back in Melbourne was her only financial support and she seldom had spending money, she didn't seem to lack for anything.  She would close her hand into a fist, then hold it out and say, 'Here I give you this,' and opening it, make the gesture of pouring her love into it.  Later, after being adopted according to Vietnamese custom, by an older man whom she looked up to as a father, she took a Vietnamese name--An Phuong.
     Adrian Seviour, who arrived in September, 1982, became my ally in the work of the Central Education Office and especially of the public library.  He never for a minute lost his dry, sane sense of humor. . . .  He had studied the teaching of English in England before coming as a BVSO [English volunteer corps] to the VRC. At first he taught only children, who could be naughty and noisy.  I could hear him at 6:30 every morning because his classroom was next to my house.  He sometimes calmed the little beasts with tunes from his flute or ocarina. . . .  Gradually, he endeared himself to the people.  He had a special love for cats, and since there were dozens of strays. he didn't lack for orphans on which to lavish affection. . . .  He, too, learned Vietnamese, and by the time he finally left (unwillingly as all three of us did), he had made an indelible mark on the VRC.
     . . . .  I think, when it comes to having the spirit of the passionate volunteer, the Filipino teachers of the Philippines Cultural Communication Service were mixed.  They were chosen in Manila to come to Palawan, and most of them had studied to be teachers.  Some PCCS teachers fell into the rampant careerist mold to the extent that, as was said of one, 'He'd lick anyone's boots.' Others among whom Toto [Cinco] and Matt were outstanding, wanted to live inside the camp, to play soccer with the Vietnamese teams, to take the little kids to the coffee shop for halo halo, or to drink beer at the canteen with the Vietnamese men, rather then spend all their time in the town.  True passionate volunteers, they thought about the needs of the people they were serving, rather than protecting their own jobs."

   The chapter continues to describe many other people whom I designated as passionate volunteers.  To name a few:  the Dalisays,who represented World Relief; Sisters Imelda, Pascale and Francoise; Sister Tomasa and Dr. Lagrada who ran the children's school; Ineke, the Dutch nurse; two Mormon sisters on a mission; Mr. Pham, a Vietnamese man on vacation from his job as an educational administrator in Oregon; Michael Smith, a Jesuit brother from Melbourne, Australia; French medical duos, Dr. Beatrice and Therese, Martine and Sophie; and countless Rotary doctors and dentists who took a month off from their practices and "often lost their hearts to the charm of the Vietnamese people and the softening influence of tropical days and nights."
     It goes without saying that Bob Groelsema, the UN field officer and my colleague and friend, was a passionate volunteer.  There are many stories about him in NOT ONLY A REFUGEE.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


This was the title of one of the essays in the idiom book.  The book had been written for students already in the U.S., but these students only knew the American UNVs and other workers in the camps.  I loved their insights.

"We who were Vietnamese we also held our bowl in our hand to eat.  But there was a person who was so different, he was American who still put his bowl on the table.  In fact he didn't life his bowl from the beginning until the end party.  Why were we so faint about that?  'Because my people is used to holding on their bowl in their hand when they eat.  If someone don't do so, my people think they are impolite. . . .

 By LE THI NGOC HIEN, my 16-year-old girl who was watching us more closely than I realized."

"In the country which have so much liberty as America.  It is difficult to keep a faithful love in the family.  If people only consider materials to be all for their lives, of course love or things for spirits will have no more room in people lives. . . .

By NGUYEN HUU LAI, early 20s."

"Americans are good friends of me and my homeland because many years before 1975, they helped my native land to create the Government of the Republic of Vietnam.  They also took care of protecting my fatherland prevented taking over South Vietnam by the Vietnamese Communists. . . .Americans sacrified [sacrificed] their lives, their property to stand beside the Vietnamese soldiers killing the communists. . . .

Oftentimes when I think of the character of Americans, I want to become an American right away.

By NGUYEN NGON, about 24 years old, in camp with his father, who'd worked with our military during the war."

These young people had amazing vocabularies for the amount of time they had studied English.  They observed and thought and wrote these essays only to me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


"It wasn't easy teaching in those classrooms.  The noise level ranged from irritating to voice-breaking.  Not only did jets from WESCOM fly over the camp daily; not only did vehicles pass on the dirt road, spewing dust through the necessarily open windows, but the camp loudspeakers interrupted every class with top-volume announcements in Vietnamese. . . .  Also, because the walls were thin and open at the top to allow air to circulate, we teachers could hear each other, and recitations by one class would compete with the one next door. . . .  The Vietnamese teachers of English with whom I co-taught--Mr. Nguyen Duc Giang, formerly a high school principal; Mr. Than Trong Ai, formerly an English teacher; Mr. Ton Ngoc Mai, formerly an engineer and a student of English at Indiana University during the war; Mr. Tran Ngoc Tan, formerly an air controller at Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon; Mrs. Huynh thi My Danh; Ms. Dang thi Xuan; and Ms. Nguyen thi Nga--to name only a few of those I met in the first few months--attracted large numbers of students to their classes, who would stand three-deep outside the open windows and hang from the rafters to listen to them teach.  No Filipino or Foreign teacher was as popular. Later, a man named Nguyen van Hoan, who had learned audio-lingual methods when he taught for the U.S. Air Force, had large classes, some of which I took over when he was called for resettlement.  Nguyen Huy Co, formerly an accountant, had as many as seventy students in one class, which I attributed to his personality.  Hoang Dinh Chau, who later worked with me in the central education office, was a popular teacher.  There are too many to recall here, and I hope they will forgive me for losing some of their names. . . . 
      Each person taught one or two classes daily. . . .  For this, they were given forty-five pesos for each class every two weeks (about fifty cents). . . . that small pay envelope did a lot for people's moral and was always shared with others in the form of coffee, cigarettes, etc. . . . .But their real reward lay in the status they enjoyed.  To be called "Teacher" was to have instant respect."

      My plan was to be invited into their classes and take part of the class time to do oral work with Jazz Chants, ear training, spelling games, stories, etc.  When the senior teacher, Ton Ngoc Mai, invited me, others followed quickly. Soon, I was doing five or six classes daily, starting at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 10:00 p.m. with smaller tutoring sessions for the Vietnamese teachers themselves.  (Of course, I took a long siesta in the afternoon, as everyone did.)  We developed ways of working together as to what should be translated and what the students needed to learn by immersion.  I loved doing this and I soon heard "Teachah, Teachah," being called to me as I walked around the camp, getting used to the subtropical heat.  Every time I raised my arms to lead a Jazz Chant, sweat poured down.  But you know, I lost weight quickly and painlessly, and I got tanned but not burned by wearing a hat or carrying an umbrella.  I was so happy that no mere physical inconvenience could get me down.  I knew as I stood outside my classroom and watched the rose-gold sunsets that I was "the luckiest teacher on the planet."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Living in the refugee camp

     This book would never have been written if I had remained in the UN volunteers' house in Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island.  It was two levels with a nice porch upstairs, hot showers, air conditioning and Filipina maids.  At first, I was so busy teaching English that I didn't think about where I was living.  Then, as I became familiar with the camp, I wanted to spend more time there.  I had to go back and forth as a passenger on local motorbike transport.  Also, I noticed that the British volunteers did live inside the camp.  One largish house made of woven bamboo with a nipa leaf roof was being used by a BVO.  It was near the classrooms and I was determined to move into it after she left.  I moved into it quietly because UNVs had never lived inside the camp. (Benefactors had to keep their distance.) What a difference!  At last, I could be a real part of the life of the camp.  It didn't have a shower, just a faucet with cold water.  It most definitely was not air conditioned.  A small fan was all I had to help me sleep, but it wasn't about amenities; it was about being where I was supposed to be. 

"It's high roof makes it look cool, but actually, it's one of the hottest houses in the camp.  I've been in refugee houses near the ocean which are much cooler. The kitchen is only a counter with a gas hot plate and a few tins of food, but the bedroom has one of the most comfortable beds in the world.  Split bamboo, when raised on a platform and covered with a foam rubber mattress has the right amount of "give" to support and yet not fight one's back. . . .During the time that I lived in my house, I learned to do without a refrigerator and to know how long any food could keep in the heat.  (Eggs, coconuts and butter kept the longest.)  I learned. . . to go to sleep and wake up to the sounds of Buddhists ringing a gong and chanting at the nearby pagoda, people practicing English, the loudspeaker playing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" as wake-up music in the morning and classical Vietnamese music at curfew.  I learned to suffer the afternoon heat and love the sound of tropical rain on the nipa-leaf roof.  My small yellow and white cat and I lived there alone, but not lonely.  When my door was open, students and friends would walk in. When it was closed, they would not.  The night was always alive, soft and natural,  I could see the sky through the tiny holes in the roof, although it kept out the rain well enough.  My house did not close life out, but let it flow around me."

That was where NOT ONLY A REFUGEE was born.

Friday, October 7, 2011

My Vietnamese Students' Essays About Palawan

I had brought a box full of teaching materials with me from Denver because I assumed that the ones currently being used would (1) be outdated and (2) not oriented toward listening and speaking.  I knew this because I had asked Vietnamese students in Denver to show me the materials they used to study English before they came to the U.S.  No wonder they had difficulty with speaking!  They had been taught grammar and vocabulary as a foreign language, not as a second language.  Of course, they had not been taught by native speakers. One book that I brought was called IDIOMS IN ACTION.  This book had exercises for five idioms in each lesson.  The last exercise was an essay.  I learned so much about my Vietnamese students through these essays, so I scattered them throughout the book.  I left the original spelling and grammar.  Here are some that give their own attitudes and insights into the first asylum refugee camp called the Vietnamese Refugee Canter (VRC) on Palawan Island.
". . . . So I took a trip to Palawan.  When I arrived here, I was surprised to see the Vietnamese refugees as many as 7,000 refugees.  Then I asked them, 'How is the life here?  Is it good or bad?'  They said, 'The life here is very good, is the best camp for all of the refugees, it has free school, and enough food and if you landed the island you have to hold two calendars in your hand first even you have some relatives in some country.'  That means I have to wait for two years first.  I got a shock, but I didn't believe them.

     By TANG HIEN NHAC, unaccompanied minor, 15 years old.  This boy arrived June 28, 1981, and was rejected by U.S. because of a change in policy toward the minors. . . . After two years in the camp, his rejection was reversedand he departed for U.S. around June, 1983, when the policy changed again."

(See the section called "Not Much of a Refugee" for more about U.S. policy changes.)

     "The Palawan camp is one of the temporary resting places for displaced persons.  It is not like Galang in Indonesia, Bidong, the dismal island in Malaysia, the disgraceful and disgusting Songkla island, especially the Seikkiu camp in Thailand which seems to be a leper hospital with high bared [barbed] wire fences to help boat people isolate with everyone outside.  When first arriving here, I felt disappointed with the first glance, everything was almost withered and dreary.  Little by little (the idiom) everything was almost back in order, contented with what I had.  Fortunately, in this camp, many volunteers have taken turns (idiom) coming here to teach us a lot of things about the new land, as well as volunteer agencies beside us all the time.

     By NGUYEN VAN NGOC, early 20s.  This young man's lively writing appears several times in the book.  I never knew his resettlement story, only that he was accepted by Australia and departed for it in 1983.

      Before I left Vietnam my mother had reminded [me], 'You have to remember that far-flung relatives are not as good as (idiom) neighbors:'  When I arrived here, it was the first time I had to fend for myself. I felt embarrassed about everything. . . .while repairing some places which were rotten on the roof, I was startled by an old voice, 'Hello, good morning.'  I turned to look at him who was a thin, about seventy-year-old man.  I replied, 'Good morning, sir, please come in and sit down.'  Step by step (idiom) he heavily came into my house.  Then he introduced himself, 'I'm Nguyen. I habitual present with my daughter in the next house.'  I answered, 'I'm very glad to be your neighbor, Mr. Nguyen.'  Then he asked me, 'Are you a new arrival?' I nodded and [he] continued to say, 'Perhaps you may meet some problems at the first time, [idiom] so if you need some help, I can help you with my ability.'  Then he went back home, at that time, I just remember that my mother's spoken words were right.

      By BANH TAN DUC, a thin-looking young man about 21, who wrote this before being accepted by the U.S.  He spent two years in the camp then he was sent to the Refugee Processing Center in Bataan to learn basic English! "

Are you surprised at how well they wrote?  So was I, and there are other essays with even more sophisticated vocabulary, structure and thinking.  I was the only teacher who received such writing for the simple reason that I was the only one who asked for it.  There were many English teachers--some Filipino, some Vietnamese, some foreign volunteers.  They assumed a low level of English in their students and gave them simple, beginning materials.  One Filipino nun told me that she would ask for a short paragraph at the end of several months of writing simple sentences and she couldn't believe it when I showed her essays that my students wrote for every assignment.  They never said anything to those teachers out of respect and gratitude.  However, some did let me know that those lessons were boring, and they poured out their hearts in writing to me.  I am proud of this.  I think it helped me to understand them in a way they couldn't express in spoken English. I spent most of the class time on jazz chants, dialogues, listening to short stories and other oral work. They wrote these essays as homework and I think you will be amazed and touched by them.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Before Palawan--from the first chapter of NOT ONLY A REFUGEE

"When I went to bed that night, I could hardly sleep for anticipation. . . .  I awoke at sunrise and was surprised to feel the heat again. . . so different from the high mountains of Colorado. . . .  Slipping on the only cotton dress I had . . . I stood on the big front porch in a buzz of insects and heat from the sun which stunned with its power.  But the greenness, the brightness of the colors compensated. . . . This at last. . . was the mysterious and dangerous tropics!. . . .  I wanted to go to the camp urgently.  Into my impatience a tropical rain began to fall, so suddenly that I barely had time to get a mini-recorder and tape that rushing music of the tropics. . . .  It was May 29, 1982.  Walking on the main road between Puerto Princesa and the Vietnamese Refugee Center, I was yearning toward the spot I'd been imagining.  Would it strike me with pity and horror when I saw it?  And whom there would I meet, teach, know and love?  I had no doubts that morning, as the Filipino tricycle bumped two kilometers along the dirt road. . . that I was going toward the place where I belonged."

This is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book NOT ONLY A REFUGEE: AN AMERICAN UN VOLUNTEER IN THE PHILIPPINES--about my service in the Vietnamese Refugee center on Palawan.  It is published by Rose Dog Books and is available on their website or on  I will present more excerpts on later blogs.