This story won the grand prize for "Story by an individual” award in the LIN Volunteer Stories Competition 2011. The competition was organised by LIN Center for Community Development, a philathropic institution that supports grassroots non-profit organisations in and and around Ho Chi Minh City. Words by Nguyen Huong Dao. Translated by UNV volunteers
I would like to tell you a story about the Nam Dinh Trash Team. It is special for me, and hopefully for you too. I am pretty sure about this.
On my first day working with the volunteer team I dressed nicely, putting on formal pants and a white shirt. I wanted to make a good first impression. But those clothes only seemed to make me stand out from everyone else. Why?
Do you think that our team has an unusual name? TRASH, or ‘rubbish’ in other words. Yes, our team does a job that could be called ‘out of the ordinary’ — gathering rubbish from donor families.
What is this rubbish used for? We sort cardboard, paper, plastic bags, metal, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and aluminum cans, then sell them. The money earned is used to buy rice for poor people every month. Sometimes, usually every six months, we visit orphanages, leprosariums and charity houses set up for the lonely and poor elderly. It’s simple, isn’t it?
You will appreciate it more as we travel down our team’s memory lane… Once, we encountered an awful, musty smell whilst sorting the rubbish we had collected. As we could not dig through everything to find the cause, we had to bear the smell and continue our work. Afterwards we discovered a big bag of meat that had gone off, hence the smell. Have you ever experienced that? It’s common for everyone in the Rubbish Team, the musty smell of stale food, the moldy smell of fermented drinks and the smell of... rubbish.
On my first day I felt disgusted, even though I had not really put my hands through any sorting work. I intended to quit, but there was something that pushed me to leave my house and come to the meet with the team again that next Sunday. And since then, I have worked with the Rubbish Team for one year and two months.
Whether it is sunny or rainy, in the swelter of a hot summer day or the chill of the northern winter, we work regularly in the backyard of a church.
Is it tiring? — Yes, sometimes. But there are still some miracles out there, encouraging us to carry on our work. These are captured in the knowledge that we are helping someone with our small task. There are lonely elders of 60 to 70 years, some disabled mothers who raise their children with psychiatric disorders year after year with no support, orphans who aren’t independent even though they are 14 years old. All of them encourage and empower us to keep going. Although we can only give each of them 10 kilograms of rice per month, and sometimes a small gift for the New Year celebration, we still want to walk together with them all the time.
I was especially shocked whilst visiting a family during Lunar New Year — the year of the Tiger. A 70-year-old mom, who had both a daughter and son with mental disorders, wandered onto the street and started to collect rubbish. It was almost New Year’s Eve, but there was only a piece of greasy ‘banh chung’ (traditional rice cake — considered an essential element of the family altar during Vietnamese Lunar New Year) in their tiny, bare house. That New Year’s Eve I continued to think of them. I swore on a New Year’s firework that I would continue to try my best to help and wished them happiness for all of their lives.
At the Rubbish Team, we are like a family. It is simply the fact that because we are working together, we are getting closer and helping each other. It is also because we have a ‘Praying and Birthday Wishing’ event every month. We visit a member family monthly, and pray and share our thoughts of life, as well as personal issues and celebrate that month’s members’ birthdays together. We understand each other, share happiness as well as sorrow, and help and support each other to get through distressful life-circumstances.
Does all of that make us a ‘family’? Not only are we walking together towards the same goal of loving and helping, but there is also an invisible link between us. “If there is any instance I cannot join our team, I feel that I miss them somehow” — that is what I used to say to the members in my Nam Dinh Trash Team.
This has forced me to get over my own personal complexes. For example, imagine you are wandering around busy streets carrying a huge bag of old cardboard, plastic bags and other rubbish. Do you feel ashamed or embarrassed? Or would you feel awkward if you were seen by a friend? There was a case when I came to a donor’s family and a child of the family called out “Mommy, the Trash Uncle has come!” In our team, many of us have been called ‘Trash Auntie’ or ‘Rubbish Uncle’.
I am proud of being a Trash Uncle now that I have had the chance to work with my team. Our assistance is small and limited. However, to be able to share their difficulties with others is a great comfort for those less fortunate. And we always hope that everyone can give a small thought at least for the poor and lonely miserable people. That is my wish, for a ‘love culture’ in our contemporary society.
Will my wish become true? Regardless, what I feel at the moment is that I am more self-conscious about how to love, care and sympathise with others and how to grow up. I hope that with your help, too, our society will be better, and love and sharing will be considered more often in our lives. That is most likely the thing we are all trying to achieve.
Republished with the kind permission of The Word HCMC